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Korea brings fresh blood to the horror scene

By in Culture
Soo-hyeon hunts for his prey in I Saw The Devil.
Soo-hyeon hunts for his prey in I Saw The Devil.

For many the horror genre has gotten to be stale and predictable, offering little in the way of scares. However, Korean horror films are bringing something new beyond the typical blood and gore offerings.

It’s no easy task to dish out the terror that leaves audiences dreading every dark corner for weeks. On a certain level, it seems like the North American side of production has been phoning it in with the same situations recycled for each new release, leaving viewers high and dry.

If you have been feeling the same way and are looking for something that’ll actually catch you off-guard this Halloween, the Korean film scene has been under-appreciated in this respect for too long.

A Tale of Two Sisters tackles more traditional themes of horror with a heavy dose of psychological terror. It follows two sisters, Su-mi and Su-yeon, living in an abusive home with their father Moo-hyeon and stepmother Eun-joo. But there’s something else at work in the home; a ghost of some kind is disturbing the well-being of everyone and making it no longer seem clear what is going on and who the abusers are.

With a focus on the sisters and a bizarre series of events that go into the more graphic and sometimes shocking realms, A Tale of Two Sisters will be hard to get out of your head.

What’s notable about the Korean horror genre is it’s willingness to push boundaries, both with it’s visuals and storytelling. While Western filmmakers have tried to emulate the style for North American audiences, it has mostly ended with adding gratuitous violence that contributes nothing substantial to the style and quality of the movie.

Korean horror films look to get into the mind of the viewer and make them squirm with discomfort without overflowing with guts and entrails.

A Tale of Two Sisters achieves this by presenting a situation that is already hard to watch — that of familial abuse — and taking it into supernatural and psychological territory. These aspects make it unclear which character is mentally stable enough to give the viewers an honest perspective on the story.

A Tale of Two Sisters is the most financially successful Korean horror film of all time and is a great place to get started for those looking to get into the genre. It has similarities to American films, with it’s haunted house setting and evil parents, as well as clear differences including a sense of dread that isn’t common in most American horror movies.

With the upcoming remake of the Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, it’s fitting to look at his foray into horror: Thirst.

Thirst is centered around Sang-hyung, a catholic priest who is well respected thanks to his noble and unflinching service to the church. He often volunteers at a hospital and on one visit agrees to be a subject in an experiment to create a vaccine that will eliminate the deadly Emmanuel virus. The experiment goes wrong, leaving Sang-hyung infected with E.V.

Seemingly fated for death, he receives a blood transfusion that leads to a steady recovery back to full health. Unfortunately, the cure leaves him thirsting for blood and sees a return of his deadly symptoms if he does not consume any.

The story only becomes more tangled, becoming one of romance and overwhelming guilt. Park manages to turn the vampire movie on its head with a unique situation and well-developed characters.

What sets Thirst and Korean horror apart is their artistic flair, which adds depth to a genre that is usually seen as fairly shallow. There are few things as uncomfortable as watching Sang-hyung succumb to his passions for love while desperate for blood. The parallels it draws with the limitations of being in a priesthood and their temptations are handled with more originality and tact than most would normally associate with horror.

Beyond the way these films handle depth in their story, each has a very individual sense of style. The cinematography isn’t looking to create jump scares but instead focuses on unsettling imagery to slowly force the viewer to watch every painstaking moment.

I Saw The Devil wants viewers to think they are walking into a typical vengeance-driven action movie, which is far from the truth. Instead, it explores the fact that revenge movies are commonplace in Hollywood and are often on the lighter side of emotional spectrum.

The film takes place from the point of view of Soo-hyeon — fiancé to the brutally murdered Joo-yun — as he sets out on a killing spree in search of vengeance for his would-be wife. The deeper and closer that he gets to finding the murderer, the more he finds himself in a series of traps that endanger all those around him.

While it may not seem unique from it’s description, the violence from the central character and villain, Kyung-chul, creates a muddled view of which man is better, causing the viewer to question if there is any morally good character in the film at all. The bloodthirst of both Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chul brings in horror from the standpoint that the audience can no longer tell who is good and who is evil.

I Saw The Devil certainly has style to its violence, making it an incredible watch, but the violence is not without reason. The film draws the viewer into its brutality and makes them feel twisted and guilty for cheering on the bloodshed. In the end, the part that’ll keep you up at night is your own bloodlust — and that is genuinely special thing for a movie to do.

This is something that personifies that Korean horror scene as a whole. With all of the artistic flair, genre blending and palpable scares, what sets these films apart is the way they combine these aspects to make the audience feel involved in their films in a way that is yet to be rivaled in other regions.


Photo: Movie Still

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