It’s a Korean Halloween for the month of October here in Seoul, which means it’s time for light sweaters, scarves, shaking boots, and well, horror movies! In this list I’ll be highlighting 4 Korean horror films to get you in the mood for this season.  I’ll be keeping my overviews of each film as spoiler-free as possible—feel free to join in on the discussion if you’ve already seen the film, or come back to weigh in after you watch these films. Many of these can be streamed for free at SolarMovie, which has a fantastic archive of Korean films in addition to Hollywood blockbusters.

4 Notable Korean Horror Movies

R-Point (2004)

R-Point, Korean horror film

This week I’m going to talk about R-Point, a film directed in 2004 by Su Chang Gong.  This film is often overlooked when we discuss the Korean horror genre, overshadowed by the popularity of brutal “revenge” horror-thrillers, but R-Point is an interesting film that falls firmly into the genre of creepy, unsettling horror while being a little less trivial than the usual summer thriller fare.

Set in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War, R-Point is not a ghost story so much as a story about ghost stories.  A group of ten South Korean soldiers are sent to a remote part of Vietnam called R-Point to find some comrades who have gone missing.  Many of these men are days away from being shipped back home, and they expect the mission to be simple.  On their journey to R-Point they joke about all the things they’ll do once they’re back in Korea, and boast about the things they’ve done and seen during the war.  One of the soldiers mentions that he’s seen the sergeant in their group posing in a picture holding the severed heads of two Viet Cong members.  Another soldier says, “Who hasn’t done that kind of thing at least once?”

As they enter the foggy, marshy land known as R-Point, they find a worn-out tombstone.  One of the soldiers is able to read some of the Chinese characters, because he’s had a lot of practice as the son of an undertaker.  He reads the inscription aloud to his fellow men: “Wherever you are, so am I.  Those who have blood on their hands…” And then he says he can’t make out the rest of it.  The film informs the audience, though, of the complete phrase: “Those who have blood on their hands cannot go back.”  Blithe to the full meaning, the soldier who earlier claimed that severing heads was just part of the everyday routine of being in Vietnam irreverently takes a piss on the tombstone.

R-Point sunset

Strange things begin to occur before the soldiers–or do they?  The undertaker’s son mutters that the place is rumored to be haunted anyway, and the rest of the soldiers scoff, but deep inside they are growing uneasy.  We see what the soldiers see, but what they see can’t be trusted as they fall deeper, quickly and steeply, into the depths of paranoia.  They blame one another for the various happenings at R-Point, questioning one another’s mental health, accusing each other of intentionally causing chaos in the group.  They are anxious and shifty-eyed in the manner of guilty people.  The casual bravado they displayed before was obviously false.

I believe the film’s ending can be read in two ways.  You can accept a supernatural explanation, or you can accept the more mundane version of things.  The latter is by far the more interesting, because it says that human guilt can transform itself into a tool of vengeance without the interference of heaven or hell.  The soldiers in this film imprison and torture themselves.

R-Point cemetery scene

R-Point reminds us of why people might fear ghosts—because we wonder if we’ve done something to bring them here.  The characters in this film fight to “go back” to their homes, sensing that this is the curse of the “ghosts” that haunt R-Point.  But the second meaning to the phrase on the grave is that no one, not the soldiers on R-Point or anyone else in the world, can go back from having bloodied their hands. There’s no real return from bloodshed.  It’s a thought made more impactful and sobering by the film’s specific context, and by the fact that this movie was made during a time when South Koreans were finally beginning to talk openly about their involvement in the Vietnam war.

While heavy-handed at times, its premise, balancing between war film and horror film, makes it worth a watch.  Then again, what film about war isn’t at least a little bit of a ghost story?

Possessed (2009)

Possessed is a Korean horror film directed by Yong Joo Lee, who also directed the sweetly nostalgic Architecture 101 (2012).  It’s a quiet and stark little film, and at times terrifying, but it’s never cold.  On the contrary, it’s rocked by the passion of characters who believe fiercely in their way of seeing.

A young woman named Hee Jin one night receives a strange phone call from her sister, So Jin, in which the only thing she says is, “Are you all right?”  So Jin hangs up before Hee Jin can ask her what she means.  The next morning there’s another phone call—her mother, declaring in a trembling voice that So Jin has gone missing.  And so Hee Jin leaves Seoul to go back to her little hometown, launching her own investigation of sorts when the police fail to see any urgency in the case.  But soon she discovers a history more disturbing than the recent disappearance of her sister: most of the neighbors believed So Jin was possessed by an evil spirit.
Possessed, Korean horror film screenshot
There are three versions of the story.  The neighbors thought she needed to be exorcised by the local shaman.  So Jin’s mother, a fanatical Christian, thought her daughter was possessed not by the angry spirit of a dead person, but by God himself.  She claimed to her fellow churchgoers that her daughter was the messiah.

The third version is the one Hee Jin and the lead detective, Tae Hwan, subscribe to—So Jin was probably just very ill, and the others have already shadowy memories of what really happened in the months before her disappearance.  These two are the disbelievers.  Tae Hwan in particular seems to be proud of his atheism, and cynicism.  For him the two things go hand in hand.  When asked by Hee Jin whether he follows any religion, he replies incredulously, “Do I have to believe in anything?”

And maybe that’s certainly true of gods.  But Possession goes further, to ask whether it’s possible for people to truly believe in nothing, not just disbelieving of God, but to be empty of even hope.  If not, then what terrible things are we capable of in order to hold onto hope?

Possessed, bloody hands
The film paints a heartbreaking picture of what faith looks like in all its forms.  Faith, not just in religion but of people and ghosts, drives most of the characters in this film to do very ugly things, blind to the possibility of other roads.  And yet, as Hee Jin explains to Tae Hwan of her own mother, it was faith that saw her mother through when her husband died and So Jin became ill.

Possession
is not about providing an argument for or against God.  It’s about desperate people, who out of that desperation scramble to find a way out.  They fabricate a world view that enables such an escape; ghosts and gods become real because these men and women need them to be.  To be possessed by the extremity of such beliefs is as violent and as dangerous as being possessed by an evil spirit, but maybe it can’t be helped for those who feel that they are facing dead ends.  While the film doesn’t propose that everyone, deep inside their hearts, believes in a god, it suggests that faith in the improbable are human instincts.  We tend toward the fanciful, and are capable of creatively imagining ourselves out of the misery of present circumstance.
So Jin from Korean horror film Possessed
The film’s best moments come when it balances between the everyday and supernatural, between heaven and hell.  These aren’t always just creepy tales to tell around a campfire—sometimes the idea of a beyond, a more-than-this, gives us strength, makes a bleak world somehow more survivable.
Was So Jin just ill, or was she possessed?  What’s the difference between miracles and mere chance, curses and just bad luck?  These are questions Possession raises all throughout, but by the end you realize that it’s not the point to answer them.  It isn’t about knowing how to tell coincidence apart from supernatural intervention—it’s about the power of personal narrative in shaping tangible events.  The stories these characters tell themselves about the world either destroys or saves them.  But all of them are indeed possessed, consumed by their own beliefs.  It’s a terrifying thing to watch.
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About The Author

Whizy Kim

Whizy Kim moved from NYC to Seoul to hike mountains and own a Jindo dog. You can find more of her film writing at themagiclanternshow.tumblr.com.