Tuesday, March 26, 2024


Like I said in this week's Next Week, the Underground Film Festival was this weekend, and would normally eat all of my time - well, not all my time; I'll usually skip the music video package and sleep in during the Saturday Morning cartoons when that was a thing (I guess Ms. Janisse is busy with other things these days), scaping back a little time to write or do the weekend grocery shopping or other errands, but Exhuma dropped in the Boston area this week, and who ever knows if it will last until Thursday night, the next potentially free date what with all the good rep stuff?

So, early day, and worth it - this isn't quite The Wailing, but it's got a lot of the same vibe of the haunting being way more than anyone expected, even if it's not quite so chilling. It's also a really fun cultural change of pace when you've got Immaculate this week and The First Omen in early April, on top of what really feels like a lot of Catholic-themed horror of late.

Pamyo (Exhuma)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2024 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

I think it was Grady Hendrix who wrote that Korean films seldom clock in under two hours even when 95 minutes would be the most appropriate length, but sometimes, as with Exhuma, that can work to the movie's advantage. Once you've been in a theater for around an hour or so, you lose track of time, so a movie could be right about to end or have another hour to go, and that's why writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon can effectively show you one pretty good horror movie and then after wrapping it up, reveal that there's a bigger, weirder movie buried underneath it, appropriately enough.

This one, for instance, begins with shaman Lee Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and her partner Yoon Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) hired to come from Seoul to Los Angeles to examine a baby who has not been able to stop crying since he was born. She soon deduces that the same malady is also plaguing the father, Park Ji-yong (Kim Jae-chul) and grandfather Park Jong-soon (Jeong Sang-cheol) - a "Grave's Calling", which she describes as an ancestor having a tantrum such that their cries reverberate down the family line. The solution is to return to Korea and relocate the body to a more auspicious resting place or cremate it, for which she will need the help of geomancer Ki Sang-duk (Choi Min-sik), who specializes in finding gravesites, and Ko Yeong-geun (Yu Hae-jin), an undertaker once trusted to shroud the President. This is, of course, somewhat unusual; it only gets more so when Ji-yong requests they cremate the entire coffin without opening, contrary to accepted practices, Sang-duk declares the gravesite a poor location for what turns out to be an unusually ornate casket, and a freak rainstorm (or is it?) requires them to postpone the final cremation.

Part of what makes movies like Exhuma fun in a way that a lot of religious-horror movies aren't is that they, at least initially, start out in this supernatural-but-grounded place, where things like Hwa-rim's explanation of a Grave's Calling both has this sort of spiritual resonance but also a sort of unstated practicality to it, because of course an adult like Ji-yong is going to try and explain it away while a baby just cries. Sang-duk and Yeong-geun idly talk about how South Korea's growing population and small size is making it harder to find good gravesites, and how maybe Hwa-rim adding a mark-up to the consulting fee between them and the Parks. Like a number of folks who have recently made great horror films in this part of Asia - stuff like Na Hong-jin's The Wailing, Tetsuya Nakashima's It Comes, Cheang Pou-soi's Mad Fate - Jang Jae-hyeon finds a way to take things that are somewhere between amusing superstition and sincere belief and work in two directions, making both the potential victims and the defenders easy enough to relate to that the audience has a foot in their world but also going big, because there's no reason an angry ghost cannot move from South Korea to California in an instant.

And then things get nuts.

As mentioned, there's more going on than just this ghost, and it's not entirely what's been implied earlier, although Jang has built his movie so that you can flow from one piece of the film to another even as things reconfigure enough to be something else altogether, to the point where one is almost surprised that the film didn't end earlier with the inflection point being a mid-credits sequel tease. The back half of the movie is wild, taking a big leap after being relatively grounded to start, but Jang has brought the audience along and has a solid enough core, augmented by a few other colleagues and allies, that the audience is ready to take that extra step with them. The grander scale, however, still has a similar aesthetic, as opposed to bringing in a bunch of obvious CGI monsters or visions of hell: The evils this group faces are still of this world, and perhaps even humanity, just writ larger.

Choi Min-sik and Kim Go-eun are not quite an odd couple, since they wind up part of a larger team and often working separately, but they're entertaining in how the represent opposite poles here: Choi's Sang-duk is not quite laid-back, but there's a comfort to his expertise, a grandfather-to-be who is probably close to the end of his career except that geomancy hasn't necessarily let him build up a retirement fund, and an easy banter with Yoo Hae-in as Yeong-geun; Kim Go-eun's up-and-comer has more attitude to her, a prickly certainty that pairs with Lee Do-hyun's quieter Bong-gil that suggests a close bond there. Early on, they can come off like competing con artists who have different ways to approach the marks, but also play matter-of-fact believers as the film evolves in that direction.

Ehuma is not quite two movies in one, but it's close, and an especially impressive value for the folks who go in not aware of just how much weird haunting they're going to get.

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