de facto film reviews 3 stars

Exhuma, the new film from South Korean director Jang Jae-hyun is a film of many parts, but two halves, and both offer a lot to viewers, though how much depends on what brand of horror the viewer prefers. Are you the kind that likes a good monster movie, with a bit more graphic violence? Do you want your horror to be mood, suggestion and what is unknown? All of this is in the film, along with a tiny dose of humor, some excellent acting, and heaping helpings of socio-political commentary mixed in among heavy duty occult references.

Concerning a group of occult investigators, who are also a bit of a grifting unit, the outfit consists of four members. There is the wise old geomancer, a Feng Shui expert, Mr. Kim, played by Choi Min-sik, who has rarely been better and is probably best known to western audiences as the lead in Oldboy. There is Kim Go-sun, as a young shaman, Hwa-ra who is yet in contact with her deceased grandmother. Yoo He-Jin plays Yeong-geun, a Christian undertaker, who helps the geomancer sell plots of land to families looking to avoid the angry spirits of the land. Finally, there is Lee Do-hyun, as Bong-gil. another shaman, and a partner to Hwa-ra. Together, this group has operated for some time, doing real work but also charging far more for their services than they ought to have. That, indeed, is what brings the story to a beginning.

Exhuma

Courtesy Well Go USA

It is important to know characters and relationships, because this is a horror film that is all about such things. When the young head of a Korean family, based in Los Angeles, calls on their services, Hwa-ra and Bong-gil realize there is a generational curse on the family, and hurry back to South Korea, where Kim informs them that they are forgetting the work, and focusing too much on profits. This is proven when the family ends up having a serious curse on them, what Hwa-ra dubs a “grave calling” or an angry ghost of the past disturbed by the circumstances of their burial. These scenes provide much of the early mood of the film, as the group spends much time trekking through woods, and into the mountains, to a remote grave.

There, the exhumation, or digging, of the title, takes place, though that will be proven to have more than one meaning. As you might have guessed, the digging up of the ancestor’s coffin is not the end of the story, and a malevolent spirit emerges. This is both where the film kicks into high gear and where it may begin to lose some viewers. If you like social, political and cultural commentary as part of your horror, and, minor spoilers, if you understand a bit about the history between Japan and Korea, you will likely at least be able to appreciate some of what is happening. If not, you could find yourself lost to a degree. However, what follows is an intriguing examination of exorcism, from a very traditional Korean sense of the term. The director wisely uses sound effects and a minimum of blood, at least at this juncture, to drive home what is happening. One thing you will not be lost with are the rules of the game, which are clearly spelled out and adhered to. Always a bonus in any story.

Exhuma

Well Go USA

Through all of it, the four leads do better than very good work, with Choi Min-sik and Kim Go-sun in particular standing out. Yes, they have to carry the brunt of the drama, but they also do it in such a way you feel that you know, and come to care, for each of the characters involved. Indeed, once the story seems to have resolved, and things are settling down, the way these two play their unease about what they sense as unfinished business, is a masterclass in subtle acting. As the film winds its way through the second half, where the social, political and cultural commentary becomes much more overt, there is a wobbling of script and direction, but never commitment from the cast. They are to be commended.

Indeed, while the second half of the film has more in common with monster films than ghost stories, it remains one of the most unique monster-ghost hybrids you are likely to find, and fully worth the more than two hour run time. Ultimately, the film asks, what is family, what is blood and where does tradition end, and sense begin? How long can the sins of the past be visited on the citizens of the present and at what cost to both? One of the best horror films of the last couple years. Highly recommended.

EXHUMA is now playing in limited theaters.