Exhuma Movie Review: An effective horror film steeped in myth, legends, and realism

Exhuma Movie Review: An effective horror film steeped in myth, legends, and realism

The film works both as a cultural and socio-political allegory and as a horror feature, complete with a subtle sense of humour
Exhuma(4 / 5)

Most horror film characters have scant regard for advice. They disregard obvious advice such as “Do not go near the window” or “Stay where you are,” even if it is common sense that would have saved them. In Jang Jae-Hyun’s Exhuma, too, such disregard for advice happens but it is used in a unique way. An affluent Korean-American family has their grandfather’s remains exhumed through a shaman (Kim Go-eun), against the caveat of a diviner (Choi Min-sik). The film uses the act of exhumation as a metaphor for how greed is the root of all evil. It is a fiendish and frightening feature that wears you to a frazzle.

Director: Jang Jae-Hyun

Cast: Kim Go-eun, Choi Min-sik, Yoo Hae-jin, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Jae-cheol

Rating: 4/5

The film starts off in conventional horror fashion, with a mildly expository passage about how an evil spirit plagues different generations of a Korean-American family. When two of their newborns die and one has an inexplicable health condition, the family calls up Kim Go-Eun’s shaman and Choi Min-sik’s diviner to dig deep into their ancestry and help them understand what is haunting them. Terming it “Grave’s Call,” the shaman explains it as a curse from a past spirit and sets off on an exploration into the inexplicable.

The first half of Exhuma is only a slight cut above your standard horror film. However, Jae-Hyun’s world-building instantly draws you into the mystical world with a blend of silence and atmospherics, as well as minimal use of horror tropes such as jump scares and “It's all just a dream'' moments. Gradually, the film immerses us in its world steeped in Korea’s tumultuous past, especially its once-simmering tensions with Japan, and culture. It is only when the second half begins that we even realise the depth of Jae-hyun’s screenplay. Take one of the central characters of Exhuma, for instance. He is the spirit of a soldier with haunting ties to the Japanese invasions of Korea. The constant weariness that the Korean characters show towards any reference to Japan, including the spirit, mirrors the complicated relationship between these two neighbouring nations. Ardent horror fans are sure to celebrate and treasure the constant juxtaposition between the Imjin War imagery and the horror sequences in the film. It seamlessly weaves in a brief history of greedy grave robbers in Korea, even amidst the shamanic rituals aimed at appeasing the vengeful spirit. Amazingly, it does not digress from the main plot, despite the multifaceted storytelling. Watching Exhuma often means flipping through pages of an ancient chapter of history steeped in folklore, myth, and realism.

It is fascinating how the film works both as a cultural and socio-political allegory and as a horror feature, even as it retains a subtle sense of humour. A horror film rarely offers such a balanced mix of emotions. A nerve-racking cinematic experience rooted in ancient culture and history that does not shy away from humour is a rarity. While the pre-interval portions hint at its world of fantasy with an element of gore, the second half also shows how grounded it is in realism. For example, the use of a real Buddhist tattoo at a pivotal plot point brings out the biggest laughs you will have from any horror film.

The execution is also exemplary. An early portion shows flames of fire segueing into the image of a man gasping for breath on a hospital bed with wheels. The sudden appearance of a snake with a person’s head is shot with such a sense of urgency that befits the eerie atmosphere. Another fantastic sequence involves two characters trying to ward off each other and establish superiority in a jungle with mist fast enveloping the trees and the surroundings. Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography not only shows the tension palpable on the actors’ faces but also adds to the film’s world-building. There are also craftful uses of visual effects for the portions where the spirit turns into a bowl of fire and circles the horizon, even as the film peels off its Feng Shui layers.

There is a sense of dread in the air, on the surface, and under the earth in Exhuma. The film that discusses the perils of digging up the past ends up crawling under our skin and leaving a spine-tingling effect.

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