7 terrifying South Korean horror films

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The South Korean film “Train to Busan” belongs to a strong banner year of horror movies, alongside films such as “Don’t Breathe,” “The Shallows,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” and “The Witch,” frightening audiences around the world with their brave new turns on genre tropes. Screencap from TRAIN TO BUSAN/NEXT ENTERTAINMENT WORLD

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There is only so much you can put in a horror film. There’s the vengeful ghoul, the shadow-infested haunted house, the deranged killer, the monster on the loose, and the wily demon — tropes that have been parodied and knocked over by films such as “Scream” or “The Cabin in the Woods.” But that doesn’t mean it can't be refreshed by capable hands every now and then. Just when you think you’ve had enough of found footage films, a longstanding tradition ignited by “The Blair Witch Project,” inventive films such as “The Borderlands,” “Willow Creek,” “The Den,” “VHS,” and “Cloverfield” come along. Production company Blumhouse revolutionized the small-budget game with sleeper hits “Insidious,” “The Purge,” and the “Paranormal Activity” series. “The Conjuring” proved that horror films also belong in the summer blockbuster season, not just superhero franchises and reboots, eventually starting a franchise on its own with spinoffs “Annabelle,” (which has a sequel slated for a 2017 release) and “The Nun,” a film about the origins of the demonic spirit in “The Conjuring 2,” already in the works.

Over at the Asian front, things haven’t been as fruitful compared to the J-horror boom of the 2000s. The overly fashioned Hollywood remakes of “Ringu” or “The Grudge” may have contributed to the audience’s disinterest in Asian cinema’s successive horror outings, but as of this year, prospects may be a little brighter with the triumphant, Cannes-approved films “The Wailing” and “Train to Busan” drawing in box office returns and critical acclaim. The two belong to a strong banner year of horror movies, alongside films such as “Don’t Breathe,” “The Shallows,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” and “The Witch,” frightening audiences around the world with their brave new turns on genre tropes.

Writes IndieWire’s Michael Gingold, “This year’s figures offer cause for optimism that, in the long term, the bean counters will realize how a good scare flick that’s more than a rehash can alleviate some of the financial pain when the next would-be superhero smash underperforms.”

Coming off this renewed focus on horror films, we revisit some of the best South Korean imports this side of Hallyuwood that showcased some of the most depraved and horrifying characters in horror cinema.

Other titles worth checking out include the “Whispering Corridors” film series, contemporaries of J-horror,  which center on supernatural terrors haunting schoolgirls; “Hansel and Gretel,” a macabre version of the fairy tale; “Thirst,” one of the better vampire romances; as well as “Snowpiercer” and “Stoker,” the Hollywood outings of its best directors, which do not explicitly fall under horror but employ some of the genre’s best scare tactics.

I Saw the Devil (2010)

“I Saw the Devil” presents a distinctive take on the revenge plot. Rather than kill the villain off in a swift blow, why not play it in a chase of cat and mouse until the prey is nothing but a husk of despair and hatred? “I Saw the Devil” starts off as an empathic ruse, putting the serial killer in his victim’s position but subjected to a series of bloody torture tactics — beaten senseless in the head, Achilles tendon clipped off, etc. — yet still given a chance to survive, only to be beaten again and again. The hunter (Lee Byung-hun) hides his cruelty under the mask of a calm secret agent, tracking his prey who has raped and dismembered young women, throughout a series of gruesome slaughter shots in vivid colors. The payoff is rather sweet, which “I Saw the Devil” gives in trickles, but as we journey with the hunter, we are reminded of our own capacity for evil, to become a killing machine, all for the sake of morals that gradually disappear one blow at a time.

 

Train to Busan (2016)

The zombie sub-genre has been beaten to death as of late but “Train to Busan” strips it off of pyrotechnics and injects K-drama to form the humanistic struggle of the film. Largely set on a KTX train speeding from Seoul to the titular destination, “Train to Busan” is “Snowpiercer” fused with “28 Weeks Later” and “Contagion,” a precise yet claustrophobic romp to the apocalypse that relentlessly delivers small and contained high-octane sequences. Details of the tragedy surface without exposition or sleuthing, and are rather presented as pinpoints to steer the film ahead. Zombies come in waves, break walls and ceilings, and snatch stock characters one by one — including a greedy corporate type, the everyman hero, and the requisite teen —  but the film never bloats their participation to get in the way of the action. The character building is subtle, each piece woven to a reformation of community that reminds us of the importance of empathy and how fragile human nature is when tipped by a catastrophic event; remembrances in an era when society has been reduced to a mob mentality lurking in comment boxes and 140-character admonitions.

 

The Host (2006)

The creature in “The Host” is no kaiju compared to Godzilla or even the Cloverfield monster but it is just as angry and hellbent on punishing humans for its relentless abuse of the environment. The amphibious monster is the result of years of pollution in the Han river, primarily, as the opening scene suggests, from the 200 bottles of formaldehyde ordered to be dumped in the water by an American military doctor. Hailed by many critics as the best monster movie since “Jaws,” “The Host” bypasses the creature feature staple by centering on the struggle of a lowly family to look for their little girl snatched by the monster. It takes turns in showcasing the failings of bureaucracy, the folly of human’s supersized ego, and the paranoia of an era resulting from whispers of biological warfare. “The Host” has been applauded for its Spielbergian attention to the familial core, but what makes the film so memorable as well are the action set pieces required in any monster film. If you need a proof, the introductory scene of the creature is set in broad daylight, breathtaking for its camerawork and CGI trickery.

 

Bedevilled (2010)

The directorial debut of Jang Cheol-soo is relentless in beating his protagonist, Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee). She lives in a remote island and is frequently molested by her husband and his brother, treated mostly as a slave and a sex toy, berated by her aunt and her gaggle of equally sun-dried village elders. Her will to live only comes from her daughter Yeon-hee. Tragedy soon strikes and Bok-nam, unhinged, takes revenge on everyone who has wronged her. Despite the picturesque calm of the island, with large waves crashing on the cliffside as if to signal the storm brewing in Bok-nam’s heart, the final half of the film stains the landscape with blood. In one rare moment of calm, Bok-sun, tired from harvesting potatoes under the glare of the afternoon sun, looks up to the sky seeking reprieve, but what dawns on her is an onslaught of retribution. “Bedevilled” is hard to watch mostly because the monsters in this movie are humans: We see Bok-sun getting kicked, raped, thrown around, and verbally abused — the last shred of her humanity ripped apart until the monster in her emerges, guiding her with a sickle in her hand to right the wrongs of a sealed-off society that thrives in fear and corruption.

 

The Wailing (2016)

The opening shot of a Japanese man baiting his hook with a worm suggests how the “The Wailing” will map out the film’s struggle with good and evil throughout its hefty 156-minute running time. “The Wailing” is an immersive study on how we are hopeless against forces beyond our comprehension, despite the numerous stories about the Devil that have served as cautionary tales for most of our childhood. In “The Wailing,” the Devil is a stranger, a force that spreads a mysterious plague that results to a set of grisly murders that rocks a small South Korean village. These incident sends the film’s protagonist, a bumbling police officer, down a rabbit hole too strange and baffling for his own good, even when his daughter’s life is at risk. “The Wailing” has a lived-in feel in it: the remoteness of the setting, the intimacy of the village folk’s way of life, and how the supernatural slowly creeps up on their routine only heightens the film’s approximation of belief versus hyperreality. There are exorcisms, undead creatures wreaking havoc, and existential confrontations that leave more questions than answers. “The Wailing” blends genre conventions to create a sense of dread that is both minute and sweeping, which ultimately feels familiar.

 

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

“Do you know what's really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can't go away [...] and it follows you around like a ghost,” posits Su-mi, the ill-fated character of “A Tale of Two Sisters.” The film has understandably become a modern classic in the K-horror subgenre. While it still features the conventional pale, long-haired ghoul common in Asian horror films of the early 2000s, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a masterwork in psychological deterioration. The setting, a house that seems to be perpetually bathed in shadows, only serves to amplify the human drama: the characters feel trapped, entangled in the mess of things that they’ve created. From the beginning, we understand that Su-mi has never quite recovered from the tragedy that sent her to a mental institution. The movie unravels this by exposing the frayed relationship between her and her stepmother, who is initially poised as a cruel monster who locks in a closet Su-mi’s sister for just being a moody teenager. “A Tale of Two Sisters” uses shock tactics at a minimal amount, and instead, as one critic notes, places everyday things, such as a kettle brimming with boiling water, a set of family photographs, and the aforementioned closet, to create an insidious air of dread and paranoia.

 

Spider Forest (2004)

Kang-min, a television producer of a mystery show, travels to a remote forest notorious for its ghosts and eight-legged residents, and finds his lover in a cabin, all bloodied and in her final throes. With her is another man, lying dead on the floor and hacked to death. Kang-min sees the killer fleeing the area. He decides to chase him but is eventually hit by a speeding car that knocks him unconscious. What follows is a non-linear procedural that attempts to untangle the web of Kang-min’s memories. “Spider Forest” outlines the fragile psyche of Kang-min, shattered by a loss that has lodged a melancholy deep in his heart. Though at times tender and plaintive, “Spider Forest” is a portrait of how madness springs forth and leaves a hideous tale of blood and revenge in its wake. In the film, the ghost may be still be a pale woman in the woods, but she acts more like a guide for Kang-min, helping him understand and confront his personal demons.