You are what you think and you are in danger of becoming the thing you most fear in this rarely seen ROK 1981 tale of terror.
SUDDENLY IN THE DARK: Where does psychological obsession end and shamanistic magic begin? Weird images from this recommended MONDO MACABRO Blu-ray release.......
Go Yeong Nam's tale of terror opens with a respected Professor of biology being attackedby a bat which suddenly swoops down toward him while he is collecting rare Butterfly specimens in a remote cave. After this nerve jangling prologue the Professor arrives at his large rural estate where he spends his time compiling data and showing scientific slides to visiting colleagues. He is somewhat distant from his attractive, loving wife but seemingly has achieved complete personal and professional success. All that is about to change, at first slowly, then rapidly, until the world is upside down. Introducing Mi-ok, the new housemaid, to his wife, Seon-hee, the Professor retires to his research as the women get acquainted. Seon-hee is very friendly and welcomes Mi-ok with a warm bath, which she administers to the younger woman in an almost ritual fashion. Something is already going on with Seon-hee, and it has a noticeably erotic edge. Things then proceed normally until Mi-ok is discovered to have a "spirit doll" in her belongings. The doll is a large, wooden icon, dressed in elaborate period style and armed with a dangerous looking medieval implement which will see a lot of action in the third act of this slow burning psychological melodrama which evolves into a twice-told terror yarn culminating in madness, violence and transformation. Remember, this is Asian, specifically Korean, fantasy, not North American or European horror. The Western parallels may be Poe, or even perhaps some of he better original episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. It's also in the genre of horror exploring the implications and dangers of looking, glancing at the forbidden and the female vs. the male gaze.
Obviously Asian in tone and style, calm, formal and realistic at first, but the style evolves into something resembling supernatural Asian folk tales. Orphan Mi-Ok has a disturbing back-story involving her late mother, a shaman priestess who died in a fire which may have some connection to Mi-Ok's unnatural relationship to her "spirit doll" friend. She talks to the doll, carries it around with her wherever she goes and places it so she can see it and it can "see" her while she is doing housework. Things become creepier and even more alarming when the wife begins to notice that the doll is sometimes positioned so it is looking at her instead of Mi-Ok. Does the doll have a life of its own, or is Mi-Ok playing mind games with Seon-Hee? And is Mi-Ok, as the wife suspects, having an affair with her husband? Mi-Ok does have a way of walking around the house half dressed in skimpy clothing. Or is it all in the increasingly jealous and disturbed Seon-Hee's mind? All of these questions are raised and none are firmly answered, making the final violent events even more disturbing.
Mi-Ok's back story, the deadly fire, and her private sessions with the doll are filmed though a kaleidoscopic matrix which produces multiple images, sometimes a distorting and colored filters are deployed, giving theses scenes an even more stylized look. It sometimes looks like techniques from the silent film era as they would be lit by Italian maestro Mario Bava. But this is unlike any Western horror film in the end. The existence of a frequently mentioned but unseen Sea Goddess is also invoked as being behind the series of events, which take on the quality of an ancient curse being played out in a 20th Century setting. Mi-Ok's eventual demise due to a household "accident" during cleaning leads to the wife's final emotional breakdown, which culminates in ferocious battle to the death between her and the now life sized spirit doll, which may or may not be the vengeance seeking spirit of Mi-Ok or her deceased shaman priestess mother. It ends in one of the most truly frightening and memorable final images I've encountered in a horror film. It's hard to shake off the penetrating spell of this unique, chilling and sometimes baffling film. There's also a case for a sociological subtext with the occult and psychological aspects being manifestations of the cultural gap between the middle class Professor and the peasant class maid. . The cultural space it inhabits is far from Western models, but sometimes surprisingly familiar tropes and images bubble up from its bottomless pool of dark waters.
Yoon Il-Bong and especially Kim Young -Ae and Lee Ki-Seon are extraordinarily credible and perfectly cast in their difficult roles. All three have to go through complete transformations by the end. The music, direction, camerawork and editing are all in perfect technical and artistic synchronization, althoug some of the bizarre visual effects will seem rather primitive to those programmed to accept modern CGI pyrotechnics. According to the Korean Film Archive, director Go Yeong-Nam (KOREAN CONNECTION) made 110 films, making him the most prolific of all South Korean filmmakers. This was the busy director's only horror film in a career that included action films, erotica, dramas and numerous other genre work.
The MONDO MACABRO HD edition is a shimmering, colorful 1.85:/16:9 transfer from the film's negative. Korean audio with English subtitles. Bonus features include interviews about the director, production and ROK film history with producer David Suh and critic Kim Bong-Seok. Korean VHS Cover Cavalacade and MONDO MACABRO previews.
A highly recommended package. MONDO MACABRO once again proves the go-to place for International cult cinema.
(C) Robert Monell, 2017