Gaining sympathy for Mr and Mrs Vengeance
Korean horror may draw Western attention for its brutality, but its focus on sacrifice and expiation is distinctive, says Daniel Martin
Credit: Rex Features
It has been almost a decade since the first Korean horror film was screened in UK cinemas, and even longer since the genre was reinvigorated in the domestic market. Yet in the years since the East Asian horror boom came to the West, South Korean cinema has gained momentum and continues to attract attention and acclaim for its searingly original and unpredictable genre films. In fact, the internationalisation of K-horror appears to be entering a new phase, with a handful of prominent directors at work on Hollywood productions intended for an even wider audience.
Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy (2003), part of his Vengeance trilogy, and Thirst (2009), has just wrapped shooting on the vampire thriller Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman and set for release next year. Joon-ho Bong, following The Host (2006) and Mother (2009), is directing the futuristic Snowpiercer with a high-profile ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Jee-woon Kim, responsible for what are arguably Korean horror’s very best and very worst films in recent years, has now given Arnold Schwarzenegger a very big gun and lots of people to kill in The Last Stand, also due for release in 2013.
It was unimaginable even as recently as the mid-1990s that Korean horror would ever achieve this level of success. It wasn’t until the release in 1998 of a high school-set ghost story, Ki-hyeong Park’s Whispering Corridors, that the genre left a long fallow period behind it and reconnected with domestic audiences.
That film has been widely read by critics and scholars as a powerful reflection of the pressures of the South Korean education system. Its tragic (and not unsympathetic) ghost takes revenge on the sadistic teachers who tormented her, and the narrative foregrounds female friendship as much as shocks and scares. The film made the domestic horror genre more commercially viable than it had been in years, attracting teenage audiences by engaging with culturally specific themes and settings.
Whispering Corridors has spawned four sequels to date, and the new cycle of Korean horror that emerged established narrative conventions remarkably different from those of the West. Whereas the victims in a Hollywood horror movie are typically slaughtered at random and are undeserving of their fates, those who suffer most in Korean horror are transgressors, guilty of some past crime for which they must be justifiably punished. The characters with whom the audience feels greatest sympathy are the ghosts, the damaged and disturbed outcasts and the bystanders.
This gives Korean horror a melodramatic and tragic tone lacking in the horror films of other national cinemas. Jinhee Choi, in her recent monograph The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs (2010), noted that the predominant tone of Korean horror is sadness rather than fear; you’re as likely to cry as you are to scream. Unlike horror from outside Korea, in which the narrative is resolved when evil is vanquished, the narratives of these films are about sacrifice as much as survival, and order is restored only at great cost.
Yet for all its cultural specificity, Korean horror, like other national incarnations of the genre, has a fundamental and universal appeal. Horror, unlike comedy, travels well.
Korean horror’s exposure in the West coincided with a turn of the spotlight towards South Korean cinema more generally, but it is fair to say that, in the UK, “cult” was the dominant generic category for almost all the Korean films released. This was down to the highly influential Asia Extreme brand, created by distribution company Metro Tartan under the leadership of legendary promoter Hamish McAlpine.
Asia Extreme was a cynical, if brilliant, marketing concept designed to sell generically diverse films from East Asia - Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong - to the casual mainstream cinemagoer as well as to a niche audience of DVD collectors. For a few years, between 2003 and 2005, Asia Extreme titles screened in multiplex cinemas around the UK, and were widely reviewed in the national press.
The brand (now defunct) was problematic because it elided the differences between national cinemas, and created a marketing concept focused entirely on reductive Orientalist perceptions of the Far East as exotic and erotic, a source of new and forbidden cinematic pleasures. Promotional images dwelled on sexual and violent imagery and, with more than half of all Korean films released in the UK between 2001 and 2008 carrying the Asia Extreme logo, the brand undoubtedly shaped perceptions of the entire national output.
Indeed, Korea’s most successful film in the UK, Chan-wook Park’s operatic revenge thriller Oldboy, fits the Asia Extreme paradigm perfectly: scenes of violence, torture and incestuous sex abound. Hype from the 2004 Cannes Film Festival (where the film notoriously moved jury member Quentin Tarantino to tears) and its strong philosophical dimension meant it was also celebrated by critics, becoming both a genuine art-house hit and an instant cult classic. Yet for all its darkness and excesses, Oldboy is not a horror film, and the generic and national confusion wrought by the Asia Extreme brand meant that few Korean horror movies released in the UK were appreciated as such.
Nonetheless, the Asia Extreme brand did include in its diverse catalogue some true masterpieces of gothic Korean horror. Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) may be the genre’s ultimate artistic achievement, deftly blending psychological nuance and a confident command of mise en scène and framing with genuinely terrifying moments of horror.
Phone (2002), the work of Byeong-ki Ahn, one of the genre’s only committed auteurs, is also highly effective, but suffered (unfairly but understandably) from comparisons to Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), the similarly themed film that reignited Western interest in Japanese horror and inspired McAlpine to create the Asia Extreme brand.
The “J-horror” boom appears to be waning, however, and the Asia Extreme brand outgrew its own hype: you can’t promise something new and unexpected every time.
Yet Korean horror endures, and audiences in the UK are finally discovering the genre as distinct from other “extreme” Asian films with two high-profile Korean horror films of considerable significance recently being released on to the British market.
The first, I Saw the Devil (2010), is almost unfathomably bad, given that it was directed by Kim, one of the most inventive and brilliant film-makers of his generation. It’s a despicable, soulless, virtual parody of Oldboy, yet it is highly revealing of the commercial formula emerging in the revenge thriller subgenre and seems to have been made specifically for the international audience.
Chul-soo Jang’s Bedevilled (2010), on the other hand, tackles the theme of revenge in an original way, and is one of the best Korean horror films of recent years. An emotionally harrowing tale of violence and sexual abuse on a small and virtually pre-industrial island, it has at its core a profound interrogation of morality and contemporary society.
The subject of increasing scholarly attention and critical discourse, “Korean horror” is perhaps still a confused and contested term. The genre has proved to have commercial staying power in the UK market, however, and in its recent incarnations has broken out of the limiting confines of the Asia Extreme brand and at last established its own distinct identity.
Daniel Martin is assistant professor of film studies at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea. He is also the co-editor (with Alison Peirse) of Korean Horror Cinema, due to be published next year.