Top 10 Films’ world tour of horror heads east to check out the best of the best from South Korea. Laura Shearer braves the delights of A Tale of Two Sisters, The Host, Thirst and more…
10. Hansel and Gretel (Yim Pil-sung, 2007)
An incredibly imaginative and dark retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm fable. A salesman gets lost along a country road, finding a girl who leads him back to her fairytale cottage in the woods. After a while the salesman discovers that the girl and her brother don’t age and finds himself inexplicably trapped and must find a way out. A book tells the story of a man escaping, but a clever twist reveals something more horrifying than his panicked state. Much more thought provoking than the recent Hollywood horror action feature and certainly a good starting point to ease you into the wonders that are on offer in the South Korean horror genre.
9. Cello (Lee Woo-cheol, 2005)
A cello player is haunted by strange happenings following a horrific car crash. Released as part of the Asia Extreme DVD and film festival franchise with Tartan distribution, it’s the perfect definition of this branding. This distribution branding aimed to promote Asian films as brutal and incomparable to Hollywood features because of their violent or sexual contents. If David Cronenberg re-designed Crash as a horror this would probably come close. It’s off the wall bizarre, hilarious in parts, and utterly one of the best curse riddles I’ve seen yet.
8. Arang (Ahn Sang-hoon, 2006)
A supernatural horror in the style that made Japanese horror so popular with Western audiences should shift your evaluation of what South Korean horror cinema has to offer. It’s no Ringu but the messed up detectives that are on the case of linking together ongoing murders and a salt storehouse spiral the narrative out in the same solve the mystery before it’s too late fashion. Some crazy characterisation mixed in with a bit of over the top acting is a sure fire hit in this film.
7. The Guard Post (Kong Su-chang, 2008)
The DMZ zone that holds the boarders between North and South Korea is the subject of many South Korean films. This narrative takes it one step further by calling on the fears and mysteries of the separated countries and what lies between. A group of soldiers are sent to a guard post to investigate and what they find are bodies all over the ground and the half-alive remains of a man with an axe in his hand. They must investigate further, and sure, what could go wrong in such a situation? Violence and thriller style tension abound in this dramatic and gory imagining of what helps keep the peace on the boarders.
6. Memento Mori (Kim Tae-yong/Min Kyu-dong, 1999)
The second film in the Whispering Corridors series is by far the best. When young student Min-Ah finds a diary and reads its pages it arouses hallucinations that are less fanciful than the gossip she was intrigued by. The author of the diary appears to be a senior pupil who shares an unusual bond with a fellow senior pupil. When the author suddenly and surprisingly kills herself Min-Ah starts to feel different and not herself. A creepy high school fable that warns against the boundaries of secrets and personal space like its American counterparts could only dare touch upon.
5. The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)
Finding a pair of red heels on the subway platform, recently separated Sun-jae takes them home as a strange fascination overcomes her. The heels are cursed to bring greed and jealously to whoever see them and they begin affecting the mother and daughter in strange ways. Visions and nightmares of ghosts and blood, theft and death, the mystery of the shoes can seemingly only be solved through the discovery of the previous owner’s fate. The reveal isn’t as excited as the lead up to the reveal, but the film follows a trend of satisfying the origin of the curse. Imagery you won’t want to re-envision in your dreams, it’s a covers all basis horror with a morality message.
4. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Creature features hold a special focus in the horror genre and so it’s only fair that one of my favourites makes it into the top five. The Host is a creature that emerges suddenly from the Seoul’s Han River and begins randomly attacking the city. Taking victims at every opportunity this giant amphibious monster seems unstoppable until one small family unit decides to rescue their youngest member. Involving three generations the family represent a part of modern day city lifestyles that see the reforming of the ideal family unit. Apart from the important commentary on contemporary South Korean family units and values, the host is one of the best modern creature features out there.
3. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003)
A family and home haunted by the tragic deaths of two young girls. Who to believe and who to trust is played with at every opportunity. This simple, creepy horror takes all the comfort of the family home and distorts it within the dark secrets of a troubled past. The fine lines of imaginary and reality in the minds of traumatised people in fragile states becomes a deadly game of truth unveiling. Childhood innocent is toyed with to an extreme level mixed with bloody imagery that will leave lasting marks on your memory.
2. I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2010)
Kim Jee-Woon’s extraordinary tale of revenge is enough to rival the before deemed unbeatable Oldboy (2003). A psychopathic serial killer who hunts for human meat and likes to torture his victims is on the loose after many failed attempts to bring him to justice. The killer has no mercy and takes a wide variety of the population as his selections, even a pregnant woman. Unknown to the killer, this one victim has connections to the forces that are failing to address the crimes committed. Thus, blurring the lines between good and evil doesn’t seem to be hard for secret agent Soo-hyun once his fiancée becomes the victim. He vows to bring the killer to the bloody end he brought his victims, even if this means aligning himself with the mindset of the monster. A fair share of blood, gore and very human moments of honest fear, the hunting of a manic is portrayed as thrilling, irrational and dangerous. Intense and one not to miss.
1. Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009)
Famed director Park Chan-Wook’s vampire film tackles the notion of the vampire film in a unique way. Hinging on the historical vampire legends that came from a fear of blood transfusion, an unlikely protagonist becomes an accidental victim. Priest Sang-hyun volunteers for a drug trial programme whilst working for a hospital, but comes close to death through the virus taking hold of his immune system. An assumed miracle occurs when he seems to fully recover after receiving a mysterious blood transfusion. Unbeknownst to the willing preacher man his transformation from man of God to morally divided blood worshiper happens fast when he finds himself desiring pleasures of the flesh like never before. It’s the most inventive vampire film I’ve seen in years and what it does for the vampire character on screen I could gush about for hours. A truly endearing vampire tale from a widely acclaimed contemporary auteur of South Korean Cinema; expect narrative twists to delight and visuals to terrify.