[GUEST POST] Michaele Jordan on Korean Horror, Part 2 – Ghost Stories

Michaele Jordan‘s novel, Blade Light, is a charming traditional fantasy that was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe and is now available as an ebook at Amazon or at iBooks. Her newest novel, Mirror Maze, is available now.

Korean Horror, Part 2 – Ghost Stories

Worn out from the holidays? Round about the thirty-fifth rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, I started seeking a refuge. Fortunately I found a haven in K-horror. Korean horror has it all: monsters, ghosts, psycho-killers, you name it, but the ghost story is their favorite.

Here in the US, we’ve lost confidence in ghost stories. Aside from a few minutes spent convincing skeptics that the ghost is real, the plot is always routine. A dead person, still trapped in some dark emotion, comes back to haunt the living. Said haunting proves too destructive to tolerate and the ghost is either destroyed (if it has spilled buckets of blood) or appeased (when its murderer is caught and/or killed and its body given a decent burial).

Hollywood is not usually troubled by endless remakes of the same story, but they seem to be tired of this particular formula. They have tried a number of twists to freshen it—multiple ghosts, extra gore, paranormal romances and convoluted mysteries, but rarely overcome their own ennui. Because most Americans don’t believe in scary ghosts anymore. (Strangely, most Americans do believe in ghosts. Just not angry, harmful ones.)

In Korea, the ghost story is kept fresh by conviction. They still believe in ghosts as objects of supernatural dread. Their films often convey a real sense of pain—on both sides of the haunting.

There are confusing cultural nuances, but they are easily mastered. Remember the references in Cabin in the Woods to the ‘scary girl’? She is the classic Korean ghost. Korean ghosts are almost always female, presumably because girls are easy to ill use, and it is the pain of abuse that creates ghosts. She is more likely to have been driven to suicide than murdered. She always has long hair (whether or not she wore it long in life) which she wears swept over the front to conceal her face. Large trailing clumps of her hair turn up in a variety of inappropriate places. The ghosts are also frequently associated with water. There’s always something dripping somewhere.

One of the best is Arang (2006, written and directed by Sang-hoon Ahn and starring So-yeong Chu and Won-joong Jun). The mysteries—both present day and past, criminal and psychological— are convoluted enough to keep any viewer guessing. Certainly, the police are baffled, and struggle to deduce an explanation more credible than ghosts. The fate of the original victim is genuinely pathetic, and subsequent developments arise naturally from well-rounded characters. It’s worth seeing. Really.

An aficionado would also enjoy Phone (2002, written and directed by Ahn Byeong-ki and starring Ha Ji-Won and Kim Yu-Mi). Like Arang, the film retains your suspension of disbelief with a well told mystery, plausible characters and a genuinely disturbing situation at the core. It also wins brownie points for the sheer whimsy of the concept: a haunted cell phone?

I can’t pretend that every Korean ghost story is a gem. It’s a crowded field. If you are not a fanatic collector, you might not want to bother with Loner (2008, written and directed by Jae-shik Park and starring Min-seo Chae, Lee Da-in and Yeong-suk Jeong). Maybe in the original language, it made more sense.  Maybe there were cultural assumptions I missed. But I came away uncertain who was dead, who was being haunted, and what exactly the motive for the haunting was. All in all, a bit too murky for the casual viewer.

But I could say as much of many American films. So I urge you not to be discouraged from sampling this exciting new source of entertainment. Hollywood needs the competition!

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Michaele Jordan on Korean Horror, Part 2 – Ghost Stories”

  1. Greeting from L.A. Love SF. Right on. Love the article. K-Horror is full of great horror films with great acting and great story. I will definitely check out Arang, Phone, and Loner. Thank you so much.

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