Atmospheric South Korean chiller from Hong-jin Na that proves too inconsistent to fully grip
South Korea has proved fertile ground for genre films, from ruthless revengers such as I Saw the Devil and Oldboy to stranger fare like this year's terrific Train to Busan. But, despite garnering great word of mouth on the festival circuit, Hong-jin Na's atmospheric chiller turns out to be a difficult watch. Slow and jokey to begin with, it takes an hour or so to settle, never quite delivering the fireworks.
Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) is a policeman in the isolated village of Goksung (the film's native title). When a series of uncharacteristically brutal crimes sweeps through the region – stabbings, burnings, a hanging – suspicion falls on the mysterious 'Japanese man' (Jun Kunimura), about whom spooky folktales start to circulate. Some say he's a murderer, others a rapist, others an It Follows-style stalker. One scene has him, naked and red-eyed, in the woods, tearing raw meat from the carcass of a deer with his teeth. But can he really be to blame for what's going on, or is it just backwater bigotry? And what's wrong with Jong-goo's increasingly disturbed daughter Hyo-jin (Hwan-hee Kim)?
Although the film makes excellent use of the dank, danger-filled surroundings – all rotten flowers, poisonous mushrooms and lashing rainstorms – for the most part it's as uneven as it is unnerving. The early scenes of Jong-goo's investigation are played for broad laughs (as in the similar Memories of Murder) while the later ones involving shaman Il-gwang (Jeong-min Hwang) and his rituals reach a kind of fever pitch. Films like this are meant to get under the skin, but between endless murder scenes and supernatural murk, possessed children and prat-falling policemen, it becomes increasingly hard to know, or care, exactly what it is you're watching. The result is striking, frustrating and – whisper it – ripe for remaking.
Limited release from Fri 25 Nov.