Nostalgia for the bad old days of B-moviesWhile Korea was learning how to make award-winning thrillers and how to stroll down red carpets at fancy French festivals, it was also learning something else: How to scare the pants off you.
Early Korean attempts at horror were actually done for TV dramas rather than movies, and were mainly in the haunted-house and spooky-ghost category. A typical scene from a classic Korean horror film, such as “Public Cemetery of Wol-ha,” involved a long-haired female ghost in a white dress quietly emerging onscreen, coming out from the darkness of a graveyard under a full moon.
Instead of graphic violence and blood seemingly delivered via firehose, the films would attempt to scare viewers with eerie wolf howls or the crying of dead children, buried inside a wall or down in a basement.
As times changed, however, so did the notion of horror in Korean cinema. By the late ’90s, Korean horror flicks had adopted Hollywood-style slasher themes, typically involving screaming teens and pretty girls at summer camps being doused with buckets of blood. Soon even that was replaced with “psychological horror,” done by respected auteurs, tackling themes of social issues and memories of trauma.
So what is it now? A quick look at what’s coming up in the horror world shows that Korea’s directors are heading back to the classics.
This summer ― and for local movie distributors, summer means horror ― the list of Korean horror flicks is a virtual guide to the occult, vengeful women and curses. Film critics have dubbed the trend “nostalgia horror.”
The story of “Arang,” which will be released later this month, is derived from a folk tale about the ghost of a young woman involved in a serial murder case; “Apartment,” which is based on a comic book with the same title by the artist Gang Pool, also delves into a story of a serial murder case in an urban apartment that results from a female ghost’s curse.
“Teacher’s Grace,” opening in theaters in August, is the story of students reencountering the horrors of their childhood, triggered by their embittered handicapped school teacher.
Indeed, horror films are an increasingly popular genre in Korean cinema. This year alone, up to 10 horror movies are to hit theaters nationwide (that figure, however, includes foreign films). Already the licensing rights for “Apartment” were sold to a Japanese distributor for $2 million.
“It’s a solid combination of a comeback film of a top female actor, a film based on a popular comic book and a celebrity director who easily attracted over 2 million viewers for his past films,” said Jang Yeo-suk, a marketing consultant of Web Spread, which is responsible for the film’s promotion. “So far, the online response has been good.”
The rising popularity of horror films in Korea is a surprise, considering the “B-movie” label ― and quality ― of most of the previous offerings.
“It’s a difficult genre for marketing, because it’s limited to fans,” said Park Min-gyung, a marketing representative at IM Pictures. “The best box office score in local horror films was ‘Tale of Two Sisters,’ which attracted 3 million viewers. The funny thing about the film is that people didn’t see it as horror.”
But the turning point for horror flicks here was the phenomenal success in 1998 of the Japanese film “Ringu,” by Hideo Nakata; the film was remade in the United States in 2002, starring Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson.
The trend for serious horror filmmaking spread in Korea in the late ’90s, when such teen Hollywood movies as “Scream” slashed their way to unexpectedly high box office numbers.
By summer 2000, local theaters were flooded with slasher horror flicks. None were of film-festival quality, but the door had been opened for “K-horror,” and overseas cult fans took notice. More importantly, the market began to serve as an important testing ground for debut works by young female actors in Korea.
Over the years, the subjects of horror became more varied as well, as many “auteurist directors” in Korea got their hands on horror as an artful genre to explore themes of fear and stylistic filmmaking.
Yun Jong-chan’s “Sorum” and Lee Su-yeon’s “Table for Four” intricately dealt with the fears that lie within families in contemporary Korean society; Kim Ji-un’s “A Tale of Two Sisters” deliberately shifted the lowbrow key of horror flicks into an artful genre by using gripping imagery. “Memento Mori,” set in a girls’ high school, exploited social taboos based on a secretive lesbian affair between two young girls. “R-Point” recalled the horrors of the Vietnam War. In “Three Monsters,” Park Chan-wook, the winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes with his film “OldBoy,” mocks class differences and social heirarchies and presents a stark vision of good and evil.
One of the notable trends in horror films made in Japan and Korea has been the association of horror with modern technology.
Since “Ringu” featured the captivating image of a ghost crawling out from a television screen, several Korean horror films explored fears stemming from modern civilization. “Phone” showed people dying of heart attacks after receiving strange calls on their mobile phones; “Chaksin Ari Final,” a co-production between Japan and Korea that is currently playing in theaters, is the final episode of a hugely popular series that also deals with “death calls” over mobile phones.
Indeed, the subjects of horror films have become so conceptual that a critic of a local film magazine wrote a feature article last year complaining that directors of Korean horror films are too insecure to shoot a straight horror film that fightens viewers without relying on artsy effects.
The influence of that article could explain the resurgence of “nostalgic horror flicks” in this year’s summer lineup .
Ahn Byung-ki, the director of “Apartment,” was well aware of that pressure when he said at a recent press screening that he wanted to “focus strictly on the narratives of horror rather than the visual aspects of the film.”
The central subject in each of the three Korean horror flicks this year is vengefulness, mainly by women. That, however, derives from the tradition of ghost stories deeply rooted in Korean sentiment, as horror legends here typically reflect the notion of “han,” or resentment, on the behalf of dead souls who wander around their homes to pay back their repressed anger to those who tortured them during their lives. Feminist critics have explained that the social repressions on women led to the myth of “virgin ghosts,” vengeful women who have repressed their anger so long, socially, emotionally and sexually, that they became a public subject of fear.
Korean horror films ― old or new ― deal with grudges of women; of tales of sisters, girlfriends and female ghosts forced to fateful deaths, although the settings have moved away from graveyards and haunted houses to more everyday spaces, such as apartments or city streets. The horror films made last year focused on female fetishes as examples of the vanity of women, as in such films as “Pink Shoes,” “A Wig” or “Cello.”
“In the end, this is a story for women,” says Ahn Sang-hun, the director of “Arang.” “It’s a story of a wound and misunderstanding and lessons in being a human.”
by Park Soo-mee