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Chills and Thrills: Korean Film Nights

 

Starting from the 16th February, Korean Film Nights begins the first in three mini-seasons that comprise of a year long screening programme. Each season will showcase six films, many of which are being screened for the first time in the UK.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to curate the first mini-season: ‘Chills and Thrills: Korean Horror Cinema.’ In 2016, South Korean Horror Cinema went global with the critical and commercial success of The Wailing (Na Hong-jin), Train to Busan ( Yeon Sang-ho) and The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook). With this mini-season, I wanted to showcase the breadth and depth of South Korean horror. As such, the films chosen act as a primer for both genre enthusiasts and cinephiles. From a desperate mother whose loss of her daughter is unbearable and can only be assuaged by killing those responsible, to a pair of high-end shoes whose surface beauty hides a deadly secret, a suicide pact between young high-school girls which is not quite what it seems, a sadistic serial killer who forces his victim to tell him scary stories, a young boy whose life is blighted by the fact that he can see ghosts , and an adolescent girl whose life is brutally cut short, these films show the rich tapestry of K-horror. Each film will have an introduction. Film critic Anton Bitel will be introducing  Mourning Grave and Horror Stories.

The programme is as follows:

16th February: Princess Aurora (Pang Eun-jin: 2005)

23rd February: The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun: 2005)

2nd March: A Blood Pledge (Lee Jong-yong: 2009)

9th March: Horror Stories (Kim Gok et al: 2012)

16th March: Mourning Grave (Oh In-chun: 2014)

23rd March: Fatal Intuition (Yun Jun-hyeong: 2015)

There will also be additional screenings in the Echoes programme including a screening at Deptford Cinema on Saturday 25th February 2017.

In addition, I will be giving a talk on ‘School Horror’ at New Malden Library on the 21st of February between 6pm and 7pm. Tickets are free and can be booked at the following link: Talk at New Malden Library

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Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak, Hong Kong: 2013)

 

A tribute to classic Hong Kong horror,  and the Mr Vampire films (1985 – 1992),  Rigor Mortis is the directorial debut of well-known actor, Juno Mak. In a self-reflexive mode, the protagonist in Rigor Mortis is Chin Siu-ho, of the original Mr Vampire films, who is playing himself. Out of work and favour Chin is forced to move to a decrepit and largely derelict apartment building. Once moved in, Chin tries to take his own life (there is a back story about the death of his wife and son which is offered as reason for his suicide attempt), but is rescued in the nick of time by Anthony Chan (who also appeared in the Mr Vampire films), a tenant who runs a food stall in the basement of the apartment building. For some reason, Chin’s attempted suicide and rescue sets of a series of ghostly and ghastly events: an old women tries to bring her dead husband back to life, and the ghosts of twin girls are set free. Will Chin and his sidekick Chan save the day? Will they be able to vanquish the ghosts of the dead?

Although I haven’t yet seen the Mr Vampire films (but will be doing for my book on East Asian Gothic Cinema), and therefore missed some of the more subtle intertextual references to the original series, I found Rigor Mortis a great deal of fun to watch. Not only does Rigor Mortis with its actors and mixture of slapstick comedy and grotesque horror evoke the days of classical Hong Kong horror but the addition of twin ghosts –  revenants of the Japanese ghost story – adds a transnational and contemporary motif to the mix. Given that SHIMIZU Takashi, the director of Ju-on series,  was the co-producer,  it is no surprise that female vengeful ghosts who died as a result of male oppression are inhabiting the same ghostly space as hopping vampires.

 

While comic relief is provided by the pairing of Chin and Chan Yau (Anthony Chan) who reluctantly are drawn into exorcising the ghosts, the emotional core of the film is provided by the relationship between an elderly women, Auntie Mui (Hee Ching Paw) and her husband Tung (Richard Ng). When Tung falls  down the stairs and breaks his neck,  Auntie Mui is unable to let her husband go, and instead turns to Chung Fat, a temple priest who has taken up black magic in order to combat the cancer that is gradually killing him, to help her in her quest to return her husband to life. Of course dabbling in black magic is never a good thing in Hong Kong cinema and really the dead should be left well alone in case they return as vampires, ghosts or other permutations of the undead and the demonic. I was reminded of another Hong Kong Horror film, Going Home (Peter Chan: 2002), where Mr Yu (Leon Laid) uses Chinese medicine to bring back his recently deceased wife Hai’er (Eugenia Yuan). The inability to let a loved one go, in Rigor Mortis, as in Going Home, can only lead to tragedy.

The film is beautifully shot, with the cinematography evoking both the cinematic past and the cinematic present. The kung-fu set-pieces are well choreographed, and the vengeful ghosts well realised, offering something for everyone who is interested in East and South East Asian cinema. It made me want to see the original Mr Vampire film series and any film that brings new audiences to old films is a great thing in my book. In these days of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, Rigor Mortis manages to do something new by creating something innovative and original from the revenants of the old rather than just blandly recycling the old.

 

 

 

 


Curse, Death and Spirit (NAKATA Hideo, 1992).

Curse, Death and Spirit is a compilation of 3 episodes of the popular Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi/Scary stories that really happenedNorowareta Ningyō/The Cursed Doll; Shiryō no Taki/The Spirit of the Dead and Yūrei no Sumu Ryokan/The Haunted Inn. Although Nakata had previously directed a short thirty minute film, Natsugetsu Monogatari/Summer moon story, Curse, Death and Spirit  arguably are what brought Nakata to the attention of Hiroshi Takehashi who co-wrote the script for Ghost Actress, Nakata’s directorial debut and with whom Nakata worked with on both of the Japanese Ring films.

The episodes are pretty bog standard Japanese ‘scary tales’, but the brevity of the narratives are well suited to Nakata’s minimalist directing style – which has not changed much over the years – and the focus on horror as emanating from within the family, in particular the relationship between the mother and child, a solid foundation for both Ring and Dark Water. The now over- familiar figure of the vengeful female ghost or yurei, functioning as the return of the repressed, adds a consistency of theme as well as vision which unites the three episodes.

THE CURSED DOLL

The Cursed Doll has a doll possessed by the spirit of a young girl who returns to haunt her sister, who has no memory of her. While the theme of dolls coming to life is sufficiently creepy, the doll never appears life-like and is obviously being positioned, pulled and pushed in scenes affecting the believability of this so-called scary true-life story.

THE SPIRIT OF THE DEAD

In The Spirit of The Dead, the ghost of the past who threatens the present is a mother who lost her young son while camping in the woods, whose unquiet spirit haunts the woods attempting to be reunited with her lost son. However, unable to differentiate between her son and those of other women, she takes their lives in an attempt to have her son with her in the afterlife. While the performances are nicely realized, and the appearances of the ghost eerie, the end is a tad predictable.

THE HAUNTED INN

The best episode, or the one I like the most, is The Haunted Inn, which to me seems to have a great deal of potential as a feature length film. Here, three young school girls visit an old inn and come face to face with the unhappy ghost of the family of the previous occupants of the inn. The use of a video-camera by the girls to capture their break, and the appearance of the ghost with her long black hair obscuring her face, broken body and white costume are precognitions of the future which become fully visualized in RIng.

The three episodes are available as an extra on the Tartan release of Nakata’s  Kaosu/Chaos (1999).

Or they are available on DVD, via Amazon –  Curse, Death and Spirit


A Good Lawyer’s Wife (Im Sang-Soo: 2003)

Most of Director Im’s films to date could be classified as ‘woman’s films’ as the protagonists are strong woman who are shown having to navigate the many obstacles placed in their way in order to be independent in what remains a predominantly patriarchal society in which women should know their place and that place should be one of subservience and obedience. While in the West, Director Im is probably best-known for his 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960 Gothic melodrama, The Housemaid (하녀: 1960) which had its UK premiere at the 5th London Korean Film Festival, he is one of South Korea’s most noted directors, both domestically and on the international festival circuit. Never shying away from addressing key social and political issues, Director Im directly addresses female subjectivity, subjugation and sexuality in A Good Lawyer’s Wife (바람난 가족: 2003).

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The protagonists of A Good Lawyer’s wife, is Ho-jung (Moon So-ri) , who is, as the title tells us, the wife of a lawyer. Yet the title is deceptive in its English translation, as it is Ho-jung who is good, and not in fact her husband, Joo Young-jak (Hwang Jung-min). Indeed, Young-jak is a largely unsympathetic figure, not only does he have sex with a succession of young woman but he has little time for his clients, viewing the practice of the law as a purely money making venture: a capitalistic attitude which will lead to tragedy. Ho-jung’s search for an identity outside of being a ‘good wife’ takes the form of a sexual journey of discovery. Unable to have an orgasm with  Young-jak, she seeks satisfaction elsewhere and finds it in an unconventional relationship with the teenage son, Shin Ji-Woon (Hong Tae-gyu), of her neighbor. At the same time, Young-jak’s mother, Hong Byung-han (Yoon Yeo-jung) is on her own voyage of sexual discovery after her husband succumbs to liver failure as a result of alcoholism.

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Like Director Im’s other woman-centred films, A Good Lawyer’s wife is very direct in its representation of female sexuality and female desire. While the search for sexual fulfillment as a metaphor for the search for female emancipation is in some ways a cliche, the powerful central performance by Moon So-ri as torn between patriarchal desires and her own desires, adds authenticity to the journey for self-discovery. While I did enjoy the film, especially when it took a darker turn, I felt that it was still a patriarchal vision/ version of female emancipation in that the sex-scenes said more about male desire than female desire or fulfillment.As such it could be argued that A Good Lawyer’s Wife, despite Director Im’s intentions, is complicit with the dominant ideology of patriarchy which relies on a conventional view of compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries.  The fact that A Good Lawyer’s Wife was partly promoted in terms of its explicit scenes of sex, thus reconstructing the female – here Moon-ri -as the object of male desire seems to attest to the difficulty of defining female subjectivity without recourse to sexual cliches.

Having said all this, I would recommend A Good Lawyer’s Wife but more because of the performance of Moon-ri than the overall narrative of the film itself.


UK Premiere: Tormented 3D (Shimizu, Japan: 2011)

For all of those who live in London, the UK Premiere of Shimizu’s Tormented 3D (aka Rabbit Horror) is taking place this coming Friday at the Rio Cinema as part of the Pan-Asian Festival. The screening begins at 11:30 pm and directions to the cinema can be found at Rio Cinema.

Tickets can be booked directly through Asia House

About the Film 

According to Asianwiki, the plot concerns “A young woman searches for her younger brother who was dragged away into an alternate world by a rabbit …” see Asianwiki for more details. 

Who wouldn’t want to see a film about alternate worlds and giant rabbits?

About the Director

Shimizu is a prolific Japanese director and the director of one of the best, if not the best, contemporary Japanese horror film, Ju-on ( 呪怨: 2000), as well as its sequel Ju-on 2 ( 呪怨2), and the US remakes, Ju-on: The Grudge and Ju-on: The Grudge: 2. He also directed the more experimental Marebito (稀人: 2004), which is well worth checking out if you haven’t already seen it.

I will not be able to attend because it is too far away for me to get home easily that early in the morning, but I am interested to know what people think.