Sunday, July 26, 2009

Muoi (2007)

South Korean writer Joon-hui (An Jo) has a bit of trouble. The work on her second novel is not going well and by now her relation with her editor has deteriorated to the point where he is leaving her angry messages on her answering machine.

Fortunately, her old friend Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha) - now living in Vietnam - contacts her with some enticing tidbits about a legend concerning the curse of a ghost named Muoi. Joon-Hui hopes that a little research in Vietnam will help her to quickly build a novel out of the tale.

She is a little reluctant to see Seo-yeon again, though, since her first novel included a less than flattering portrait of her friend and a love triangle she was caught in.

But when the old friends meet in Vietnam, Seo-yeon shows no sign of irritation at all. She probably just didn't read Joon-hui's book.

And it surely is an accident that the story of Muoi sounds quite a bit like a more dramatic version of Seo-yeon's own.

Muoi (Anh Thu), you see, was a Vietnamese woman in love with a man who was unfortunately already eloped to another woman. His fiancee was of a rather murderous disposition, and when she found out that her future husband was having an affair, she didn't think twice of burning Muoi's face with acid. Her heart broken and her face ruined, the girl committed suicide only to return as an understandably pissed off ghost. With the help of Muoi's treacherous lover the local priesthood managed to catch the wrathful spirit in a portrait, but a few decades later Muoi was accidentally freed and started a new career as an avenging ghost, using her powers to take revenge for other women betrayed by their lovers - for a terrible price, of course.

As soon as Joon-hui has arrived in Vietnam, she starts having the strangest dreams about Muoi. The further her research into the legend leads her, the less is she able to separate dream from reality and the less sure she gets about Seo-yeon's friendship. Could it be that Seo-yeon has cursed her?

Muoi, a South Korean/Vietnamese co-production written and directed by Tae-kyeong Kim, is a fine and elegant little film.

While the connoisseur of Asian horror probably won't be surprised by much of what is happening (I certainly wasn't), she most certainly won't be disappointed either. The film has a direct and seemingly uncomplicated told story, quite distinct from the complicated plotting that is par for the course in South Korean horror, but it still achieves an emotional complexity I found surprisingly touching.

The emphasis here does not lie on the horrific events (although the film's finale is of assured creepiness). Instead Tae-kyeong Kim's main interest lies in his characters and in the way their secrets and lies and the secrets and lies in Muoi's past mirror each other until it becomes obvious that a variation of Muio's story is playing out again before our eyes, old pain perpetuating itself again and again.

A major reason for the effectiveness of Muoi are An Jo and Ye-ryeon Cha, who both help to let characters come to life that might have become melodramatic cardboard cut-outs in less accomplished hands and who manage to imbue the film with a slight and subtle hint of classical tragedy.

I was also quite satisfied by the way the film never fell into the trap of making Vietnam into the evil place where evil black magic comes from (as your typical Hong Kong film would do). Whatever evil there is, is something the characters are carrying inside of themselves and that would follow them wherever they went; nationality just isn't of any importance.

Tae-kyeong Kim's direction puts no importance in being flashy or stylish in a way that would hamper the film's plot, yet psychologically clever colour compositions and the flow of Muoi's story betray a director of great talent and a disposition that puts his film's story before the sort of showiness that permanently screams "Look what a clever director I am! I am Brian dePalma's illegitimate son!" (or something of this sort).

Having said this, I don't think that everyone's world will be as rocked by Muoi as mine was. There is much to recommend the film, yet it is neither heart-pumpingly exciting nor original. If you can live with that, you'll probably find a lot to like about it, if not, it's a film best to avoid.


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