“If you are looking for a happy ending, you won’t find one here.” That’s the warning every Korean horror movie should come with. Sheer, morbid curiosity about the craft, is what makes a person delve into this band of horror. Korean cinema has always been home to tales of vengeance, grief, violence and madness that exists in the human psyche. What makes a Korean movie engaging is the not the disturbing violence or the gruesome imagery or the complex characters but the brutally honest scenarios that are presented to you in every story which is pretty much absent in any western film of the thriller or horror genre. Korean filmmakers are not only experts in portraying dark themes but also communicating it in an absolutely raw format to the audience. Even recent Japanese horror doesn’t seem to be at the same level. Gone are the days of Joun: the grudge and Ringu that have now simply been replaced by lackluster re-makes that take a more anime themed approach to horror. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, Korean horror has found a larger audience in the international community that has praised these movies in theaters and has received standing ovations at film festivals.
Alert: Mild Spoilers Ahead
The matured darkness shown can actually teach us how to make more striking horror films. This article will strictly focus on horror movies, movies like Oldboy or I saw the devil won’t find mention here, despite having certain horror aspects to them. An interesting feature observed in Korean horror is ‘Contrast.’ They have an amazing way of carefully mixing two different genres together. One minute you are watching a teen rom-com which by the end might turn into a mind-bending science-fiction horror movie. This ‘Contrast’ is also found in their murder-mystery thrillers which is why many people also consider Oldboy to be of the horror genre due to its disturbing scenes. These movies are odd hybrids of extremities. Having tonal shifts from horror to comedy is not uncommon; Director Jordan Peele uses this trope a lot. However, the comedy in Korean horror movies doesn’t undercut the overall severity of the movie, it actually deepens it.
The first thing that this idea does is make you feel comfortable. When you’re going to watch a horror movie, you are already on your guard, waiting for something bad to happen, it’s these comedic scenes that make you feel at ease, that make you feel that things can be trusted now. This is seen in the two main characters of The Host and The Wailing, both are klutzy and mess up often and it is these scenes that make you laugh and open up to the movie. Both of them are inept at their jobs and at being parents. Their ridiculous antics and slapstick-filled actions really make us question whether we are watching a horror movie. These moments of levity make us doubt that something bad is going to happen, and this is how the movie prepares us to be scared at the worst possible moment.
The second thing ‘Contrast’ does is disorient us. We are left not knowing how to react to a particular scene. This is best shown in the movie, The Host, where the family goes to a wake to mourn the loss of their loved one. You expect the scene to be very heavy and melodramatic but it subverts your expectations by turning it into a comical one. You remain surprised with your own reactions to it and simply can’t help, but laugh at the actions of the family. What this does is create a feeling of ‘intrusion’, when you feel that something is not supposed to be there. It’s off- setting as if the comedy is intruding into the horror but in turn, the horror is hiding underneath the comedy and when this happens, the horrific moments strike us even deeper.
Another unique feature of Korean horror movies is how it keeps the audience at a reasonable distance from the truth. They keep information away from you and make you work for it by piecing together the meaning of certain scenes while other western horror movies are known for handing it out freely. In A tale of two sisters, the trope of ‘Contrast’ is used to distance you from the truth. In the beginning, everyone is led to believe that they are watching a haunted house movie. We get to see all the classic aspects of such a movie like an evil spirit, weird noises, strange apparitions, etc but while we are focused on this, there are other things happening in the back. That’s because these supernatural occurrences are actually part of a narrative distraction. This is what keeps the audience at a distance from what is truly haunting Tsumi, it is a ghost but formed by her guilt and as she can’t accept her guilt, so is the audience kept in the dark about it. It is only at the end when she accepts her guilt; we get to see the truth of what is actually going on and the truth that she was hiding from both her and us.
Often, in horror movies, there is an attempt at explaining the threat or entity at play, and the audience is given a set of rules or ideas about how the entity can be defeated but in South Korean movies, the goal is to try and survive it. In The Wailing, the threat is a weird one but is not kept hidden. The writer and director, Na-Hong Jin, obscures the truth with our doubts regarding the movie. There is a weird epidemic in the town presented in The Wailing that is making people go mad and brutally murder others. The main suspect connected to all of it is a simple old Japanese man. We are informed from the beginning that he is the danger in this movie but to us, it seems as odd as he is almost indistinguishable from the rest of them in being normal and that is how the director wants you to feel. Director Na-Hong Jin had said,
“I wanted to portray this character through someone who has similar physical characteristics to Koreans. This is why I cast a Japanese actor. As time went by, he would reveal his true nature and we would realise that he is different and that even communication is impossible. I wanted to express this fear coming from the impossibility of communication.”
This is meant to keep the threat unclear and to create uncertainty about what information the audience can trust and cannot. This opens the audience up to a character feeding them a false narrative. This makes them doubt their own judgments and makes them question themselves that at what point of the movie did they fall into the trap set by the director.
Coming to the ending of Korean horror movies, the audience has up until now been disoriented and confused but there is also something else waiting for them. Once they reach the end, it feels that they are not trying to scare you, what they have done is managed to instill despair and dread inside of you. This is one of the defining aspects of Korean horror; they are masters at portraying melodrama. These movies are actually defeatist narratives, filled with extremely sad endings. In A tale of two sisters, you don’t feel scared at the end but sad for what Tsumi has gone through in all of this, in The Host, the threat is dealt with but the way the government handles the relief activities for the calamity make you question whether humanity still exists or it is just a utopian concept and in The Wailing, you feel utterly broken and defeated for having gone up against something that is much bigger than yourself. Despair, at the end of a movie, can paint a different picture than fear. Fear is based on adrenaline and thus activates our flight or fight instincts but despair, on the other hand, is complicated.
It is a sinking sadness with its own strong lingering after-taste. It is gut-punch that feels weirdly personal, like you have been in an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows. At the end, you are left used up because the range of emotions that you have, were all spent. It takes the audience out of the escapism of the movie and makes them wonder why this darkness feels so eerie and personal. This is mostly due to the fact that many people are not used to this kind of horror. The horror genre mainly portrays the repressed fears and struggles of the place from where it originates and South Korea always had a depressing past due to which it can’t help but feel emotionally devastating. Be it societal or personal, cinema helps us to become tourists to someone else’s repressed fears and darkness.