Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (2015)

Original title: 퇴마: 무녀굴

Sin Jin-myeong (Kim Seong-gyoon) – in a way that does not seem uncommon for quite a few people in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea as far as I understand (which might not be far enough) – has one foot firmly planted in the world of belief and the other in that of science, in his combined role as a shaman and as a psychiatrist. It’s actually a useful combination of skill sets, in that it helps Jin-myeong to discern if someone is mentally ill or suffering from a spirit sickness and give her or him the proper help in any case. He is also neither a fraud nor interested in making a lot of money (though what we see of his lifestyle suggests he’s making quite a bit of it), very much trying to keep out of the limelight, even though TV journalist (with a history of debunking shamans as frauds, the film implies, though I suspect not because she doesn’t believe in the supernatural at all) Joo Hye-in (Cha Ye-ryeon) is trying her damndest to at least get an interview with him.

Joo Hye-in will actually get her wish when she helps Jin-myeong with information concerning his newest case, though there’ll be none of the debunking subplot you’d get in a western film because the journalist will quickly witness things nobody could debunk and does the culturally appropriate thing and quickly accepts Jin-myeong is no fraud. Said case is a rather disturbing and dangerous one, too.

Just before he dies in a mysterious accident, an old army friend of Jin-myeong’s sends him an email asking for help for his wife Kim Geum-joo (Yoo Seon) whom he suspects to be possessed, most probably by a vindictive spirit. At least, people around her die under mysterious circumstances, and she has curious blackouts during which she acts like a very different – and really rather unpleasant – person. On a first meeting, during which Geum-joo is in one of her “phases”, Jin-myeong quickly suspects that a very strong, very dangerous, and very malevolent spirit is having its way with her. It’ll take quite some investigative work and involve quite a bit of danger to help her, particularly since the spirit isn’t just interested in Geum-joo but also in her little daughter Se-yeon (Yoon Ji-min-I).

In large parts, Kim Hwi’s The Chosen is what you’d expect from a contemporary South Korean mainstream horror film (that is to say, the sort of horror film that gets a big release in the summer, which isn’t blockbuster but horror movie season there). It’s exceedingly slick on a technical level, well-acted by pretty people, and features the sort of production values many a western horror film would kill for to have. Unlike many a film made in the country in the last few years (the golden age of South Korean horror looking done and gone from over here), Kim’s film doesn’t work up to a nonsensical twist that makes everything that came before less interesting, though (an approach I blame on quite a few filmmakers misunderstanding misunderstanding what made A Tale of Two Sisters so great).

In fact, the film works more like a proper supernatural mystery, or to be more specific, an occult detective tale, with our hero investigating a phenomenon very much like a more quotidian detective would a murder, using hypnosis, his medium (Kim Hye-seong) and plain research and investigation to understand and conquer the problem. This does of course put our hero very much in the tradition of western literary characters like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, particularly since his mix of the spiritual and the scientific is very much in the same spirit as the approach these characters have to their jobs. I’d love to know if the-shaman-as-occult-detective is an approach you find often in Korean supernatural tales (I haven’t seen another movie from the country that does), if there are translations of things of the Blackwood or Hodgson stories into Korean, or if the film’s approach just happens to fit into one of my favourite horror sub-genres.

And make no mistake, this sort of thing is catnip to me, and a strong enough lure I don’t even mind much how jump scare heavy the film’s first half or so is. Although, to be fair, Kim’s approach to horror scenes is somewhat broader, and particularly the film’s second half features a pleasing mixture of these jump scares, general spookiness, well-developed moments of slowly creeping dread as seen in many an Asian horror film as well some choice moments concerning snake spirits and their habits. Also making an appearance are a somewhat unhinged Pastor (Cheon Ho-jin) – surprisingly not used to set up shamanism as the positive antithesis of crazy Christianity as much as I’ have expected/hoped though the western religion doesn’t get away scot free if you think about the plot a bit – an ancient evil, and the way the consequences of the government actions – as silently condoned by the US military - during the Jeju Uprising fed this evil and helped it break free. I was rather surprised to find the film talking rather openly about the Jeju Uprising, which is one of the moments in Korea’s history that have – when they have not been outright illegal to speak of – mostly gone unmentioned in Korea’s popular culture. There’s – given what causes most of the evil in the film’s narrative – more than just an implied political critique here, which is not something I’d expected to encounter in what is a mainstream horror film.

All that and an evil ancient snake spirit, too, so The Chosen: Forbidden Cave does work rather hard for our interest and affection, and I for one was mostly delighted, sometimes even surprised, by its efforts.

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