My notes on the Korean horror film Si-gan-wi-ui jib (House of the Disappeared).
Though English language remakes of ‘foreign’ horror hits are a commonplace, it’s rare for a breakout movie from one non-anglophone territory to be remounted in another … though, as various Asian film industries grow in strength, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a phenomenon we start to see more of. Here, writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo’s Venezuelan La casa del fin de los Tiempos (The House at the End of Time) is transplanted very faithfully to Korea by screenwriter Jang Jae-hyun (The Priest: Exorcism) and director Lim Dae-Wung (whose The Guest isn’t a remake of the Adam Wingard film). Relocating the story to Korea brings in a few extra elements, giving the eponymous house a backstory involving a wicked Japanese oppressor and the Occupation and expanding the held-over Catholicism to include elements of Asian beliefs including a feng shui advisor who admits to being out of his depth when faced with the spiritual and temporal complications surrounding the beleaguered heroine.
On November 11, 1982, housewife Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yun-jin) is arrested for the murder of her cop husband (Jo Jae-yoon) and young son Hye-jo – though only the dead dead is on the premises, with the assumption being that she’s managed to conceal the corpse of the kid. Twenty-five years later, suffering from laryngeal cancer, Mi-hee is released under license and returns to the uninhabited home, though the cops tell her not to expect much of a welcome in the neighbourhood. Apart from stones thrown through the window, the only attention she gets is from an earnest young priest Choi (Ok Tae-yoon) who was once a friend of Hye-jo and to whom she eventually confides her version of the story …which, in its most believable version, is that her husband became violently abusive after the death of his natural son and wanted to take it out on Hye-jo, whereupon Mi-hee stabbed him. However, the version we eventually see involves a timewarp that connects days in the house twenty-five years apart and makes it seem haunted by folks who have vanished there at regular intervals even before 1982. The story follows grey-haired Mi-hee in the present, as she seems still haunted by the house’s lost souls, and her younger self in 1982, as the tragedy plays out, complicated by her first attempts – after rearranging the furniture no longer seems an option – to lay the ghosts with rituals and exorcisms.
Viewers who’ve seen the relatively recent original film might find this slightly slow-paced as it has to sell quite complicated concepts while posing as a familiar paranormal drama – with shock apparitions, lots of interior gloom, jump scares and the like. The situation inside the house appears to have more to do with quantum physics than religion, but a lot of time is spent musing on God’s purpose. It’s one of those set-ups, quite popular since The Orphanage, where an apparently malign supernatural phenomenon turns out to be either neutral or benign – the house here seems to torment Mi-hee and the others, but actually gives second or third chances and allows for a quite affecting home stretch involving maternal sacrifice and redemption which has resonance in South American or Korean culture. An American remake – which is probably inevitable – might have to tweak this to avoid being mawkish. A solid vehicle for Kim Yun-hee – a big star in Korea, best known internationally for her regular role on Lost – this affords the star a chance to play several versions of the same character, with some persuasive old age make-up and body language for the 2017 frame sequences.
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