Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Priests (2015)

aka Black Priests

Original title: 검은 사제들

Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok), has been the Catholic Church’s exorcist in South Korea and the local man of a vague Rosicrucian cabal inside the Vatican that seems to concern itself with particularly evil demons or something ever since the priest he assisted fell into a coma. Not that Kim’s Korean superiors actually want to have much to do with him, mind you: they loathe him, and all the help they might give him is strictly unofficial and certainly happening under duress. For the last six months or so, Kim has attempted to exorcise teenager Yeong-sin (Park So-dam) who has something particularly bad dwelling inside of her. After the girl survived a suicide attempt, Kim’s work has come under a degree of public scrutiny too, with his superiors denying everything.

The man and the work are also chewing up assistants left and right. The newest candidate is young Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won), our viewpoint character, who just might turn out to be a born exorcist, though he doesn’t exactly seem to be the ideal priest. Kim will dearly need Choi in the battle to come.

If you’re like me and have grown bored of US exorcism films at about the time of The Exorcist, Jang Jae-hyeon’s debut film just might make you a happier and less bored person. Not because it is a terribly effective horror film: in fact, there’s little horrific happening until about the halfway mark, and what happens then really isn’t terribly effective. In fact, the film spends more time on Choi finding out the plot’s basics and getting involved with a lot of things that won’t be of much import later – be it the Rosicrucian stuff or the distrust his superiors have of Kim – than get on with exorcism business. Indeed, speaking of the film having much of a plot beyond “exorcism” and “young priest pretty randomly finding his calling” would be saying too much to a nearly absurd degree.

However, the film’s treatment of the Catholic faith, exorcism and all things theological, wildly mixing up western and Korean spiritual, theological and imaginary concepts in a way that becomes increasingly and delightfully bonkers makes up for pretty much all of its failings – and it’s not just the Rosicrucian catholic exorcists watching out for demons they call “the twelve manifestations” that’ll delight and astonish. For example, there’s that wonderful moment when our priestly heroes spray themselves with what the subtitles call “female secretions”, because apparently, demons don’t really work with the females of the species. Consequently, Yeong-sin’s possession is some kind of accident, and the demon inhabiting her would really rather like to hop into a much more useful male; we don’t know the demon’s position regarding trans people. We also learn that exorcists needs to be born in the year of the tiger – which is certainly a little known part of Catholic doctrine. But then, our heroes will make up for that little lapse in doctrine by getting the Vatican to mail them The Holy Bell of Saint Francis of Assisi, which quite obviously gives them +5 on spiritual attack rolls against demons.

Demons, by the way, are easiest detected by putting a horde of kittens into the potentially possessed’s bedroom and watching what happens; the best exorcism soundtrack is Bach. All this is the little stuff, though – as you know, the goal of every decent exorcism is to transfer the demon into a piglet, which will then turn black and make demon noises, while some hapless priest has exactly one hour to drown it in a river at least 15 metres wide.

Yes, Virginia, this does indeed mean that The Priests' dramatic –and played in a tone of utmost seriousness for this is certainly not meant as a comedy - finale sees Choi hunted by the police, running around with a devil piglet in his arms, and trying to reach the nearest river while said devil piglet causes absurd traffic accidents, blocks taxi doors, and looks absolutely adorable while making demon piglet noises. If one of cinema’s noblest goals is to show an audience things it hasn’t seen before, the film certainly is a triumph. I, for one, found myself stunned, awed, confused and highly amused watching it.

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