K-horror genre finds inspiration in the ghosts and ghouls of Asia
Produced by Na Hong-jin and directed by Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun, Thai horror “The Medium,” released on July 14 has garnered over 820,000 in ticket sales at theaters nationwide and currently ranks as the third most commercially successful film by a Korean creator released this year following “Escape from Mogadishu,” which is at No. 1, and “Hard Hit.” Set in the Isan region of Thailand, “The Medium” centers on a family that is possessed by evil spirits.
Another supernatural film “The Cursed: Dead Man’s Prey,” which director Yeon Sang-ho behind “Train to Busan” (2016) scripted, was released on July 28. Its plot revolves around a dukun, an Indonesian term for shaman, that controls corpses as a means of revenge.
Supernatural horrors created by Korean filmmakers, a genre which people nowadays dub “K-horror,” are often rooted in legends and myths from neighboring Asian countries that are adapted to fit Korean narratives. “The Cursed: Dead Man’s Prey” is actually a spinoff of the tvN drama series “The Cursed,” infusing Indonesian shamanism with the eastern version of zombies, called jaechaui in Korean. Jaechaui are bodies that have risen from the dead, deriving from a book called “Yongjaechonghwa,” written by Sung Hyun (1430-1504) in the early periods of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The book also contains notes about folklore and religions.
Rather than merely focusing on the gory elements of the supernatural horror genre, “The Cursed: Dead Man’s Prey” follows the protagonists’ sleuthing which ultimately leads to them uncovering the corruptive practices of a pharmaceutical conglomerate.
“I deliberated on how to develop Asian myths and legends to fit them into contemporary legends," director Yeon said after the press screening of the film last month. “Whereas other creatures from the book had more specific explanations behind their origin, jaechaui were considered a superstition. So I naturally came to wonder if jaechaui were derived overseas. I know that shamans who practice black magic can revive a corpse, and as I searched for an Asian version of black magic, I came to link dukun from Indonesia [with the narrative].”
Choreographer Jeon Young, who is behind movements of zombies in “Train to Busan” and Netflix series “Kingdom” (2019-), participated in designing the movements of the jaechaui in the film “The Cursed.” Unlike the jerky, rapid movements of zombies as they hunt for humans to feed on, the undead in “The Cursed” look like puppets controlled by strings.
“I didn’t know about dukun until I began to work on this project,” director Kim Yong-wan said. “There are different kinds of dukun who practice their magic for different purposes. Some use magic to physically hurt people and some for fortune telling. We drew on the universal emotion of familial love [when we explain the motives behind dukun’s revenge] so that Indonesian culture is not degraded or misunderstood in any way.”
“I felt that there were a lot of similarities between Korean and Thai shamanism,” Pisanthanakun of “The Medium” has said in press interviews. Written by director-turned-producer Na, Pisanthanakun personally interviewed 30 shamans living in various parts of Thailand to accurately depict the reality of local shamanism.
Koreans creating content for streaming platforms, which have already seen success with K-horrors such as “Train,” “Peninsula” (2020) and “Kingdom,” are also drawn to myths that originate in Asian countries. While such myths are a novelty to Korean audience, they are also familiar enough that they can relate to their emotional and cultural contexts.
Another Netflix film “The 8th Night,” released on the platform last month, centers around eight days of battle between a former monk and a millennia-old spirit that possesses humans and ultimately unleashes hell on Earth. Although the film briefly reached No. 1 in the Top 10 shows on Netflix Korea ranking, it quickly dropped down the list with viewers criticizing the lack of consistency in its plot. However, the film was more popular in neighboring countries. It took the top spot on the same Netflix lists in the Philippines according to data from global market researching company Felixpatrol, and ranked No. 2 in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Actor Lee Sung-min, who portrays the ex-monk Jin-soo, said at a press interview that he saw the film as an opportunity “to bring our Buddhist culture into the spotlight around the world. Highlighting religious aspects is also what distinguishes our film from other similar genres.”
In a report titled “Looking into the cultural context of Malaysia’s film industry through horror films” (translated) published by Hong Sung-ah, a Korean Film Council correspondent in Malaysia last month, Hong noted that East Asian countries are very familiar with themes related to eradicating evil spirits through shamanism. “In Thailand, which is a Buddhist country, monks exorcise evil spirits in their horror films, while in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, an Islamic leader memorizes verses from the Quran to practice exorcism.”
It looks like elements from other Asian countries will continue to be infused into K-horror content. One of advantage is that production costs can be cut depending on the setting of the film. For example, production costs for “The Medium” amounted to 2.3 billion won ($1.9 million), which is twice as much as the average production costs for a film in Thailand, but is considered to be low-budget in the Korean film market.
Director Yeon will continue to expand his series of horror genres through streaming platforms such as Netflix and Tving.
“As global interest has shifted toward Korean content, I think collaboration with overseas production companies also became easier and more active than in the past,” Yeon said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I used to joke about creating a story about a Korean shaman practicing exorcism in New York, but that is actually being created right now."
As Korean content continues to be globally popular, Yeon said that he became more prudent about accurately depicting the various cultural sources that he uses in his narrative.
“For instance, my upcoming Netflix original series ‘Hellbound’ is also slated to be released simultaneously in over 190 countries,” he said. “There may be parts in which viewers of different ethnicities feel that I have manipulated or misrepresented their cultures, in ways that I’ve never anticipated, so I have to be extremely careful in those aspects.”
BY NA WON-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]