The recurrence of rabbit imagery in the Korean films I’ve seen recently prompted me to go on a little investigation. (One of the main characters in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wears a helmet with bunny ears, the killer in Bloody Reunion wears a child’s rabbit mask, and the house in Hansel and Gretel is decorated with disconcerting rabbit portraits and stuffed animals.) This is what I found out: the rabbit, as I should have remembered, is one of the animals on the zodiac, and many Asian countries describe the patterns on the moon as resembling a rabbit, whereas we see the Man in the Moon. The creature’s importance as a symbol dates back to a Buddhist tale in which a rabbit sacrifices himself to feed a hungry beggar (who is actually a heavenly ruler in disguise), and as a reward for his generosity, he is taken to live in heaven (the moon).
So how does this knowledge inform my comprehension of today’s films? Not one bit! It’s a nice little piece of trivia to have, though. As my source points out, “The rabbit’s familiar role as a protagonist in Korean folklore says something about the personality traits that are valued in Korean culture. Time after time, the animal is portrayed as docile and smart, witty and creative.” Maybe the use of rabbit imagery in the horror films is meant to be ironic, since the characters are far from being either docile or generous.
In my first blog post about Korean movies, I noted that the films tend to be on the longer side. Bloody Reunion, however, being only an hour and a half long, won me over by its remarkable efficiency of storytelling. We first see a beloved elementary school teacher who is very pregnant. While she sits on a rock watching her pupils at recess, blood begins to run down her leg; something is wrong. She gives birth to a child we are meant to understand is hideously deformed. Years pass and the child’s defects drive a wedge between husband and wife. In horror and shame, the father commits suicide – hanging himself in front of his son.
This all happens within the first two minutes of the film. Economical. The rest of Bloody Reunion clips along at a nice pace, as it develops its characters and sets up the story. After the opening, we skip to a point near the end when police discover a basement full of mutilated bodies and go to the hospital to question the only two survivors of a horrific massacre: the aging, unconscious mother/teacher who is now dying of cancer, and her meek, shell-shocked caretaker who was once her student. She explains to the police what happened and most of the movie that follows is a flashback that shows her version of events:
Knowing that the teacher is close to the end of her life, the caretaker has decided to arrange a reunion at the house with a handful of former students who are all grown up now. As each student arrives, we get some great shorthand characterization. There’s the sad-sack former athlete cut down by injury, the plastic surgery-obsessed glamour-puss who used to be fat, the sensitive “shy guy” who lurks, the troubled and rebellious loner, and the seemingly well-adjusted couple who have overcome poverty and are engaged to be married. As each character interacts with their old mentor, it becomes clear that she wasn’t exactly a beloved schoolmistress, after all. In fact, she was kind of a mean bitch who physically and emotionally abused them throughout their childhoods in ways that very much shape and haunt their adult lives. One by one, the pupils confront their teacher about the various ways she ruined their lives, and then the carnage starts. Someone in a bunny mask starts killing the partiers one at a time, in extremely gruesome, albeit unrealistic, ways.
Is the killer the disfigured son who has come back to take revenge on the kids who once reviled him? Or is it the “shy guy” who took pity on the son and wants to punish his unsympathetic classmates? Or is it something else entirely? Probably one of those things! I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the movie really pulls the rug out from under the viewer, for better or for worse. For such a short movie, there are a lot of plot twists and weird structural reversals. The big reveal didn’t really work (for me) and left a lot of unanswered questions, as well as making some unsatisfying revisions to the first two-thirds of the movie. Setting that aside, though, I was still pretty impressed by the narrative risks that were taken.
The other horror movie I watched, Hansel and Gretel, eschewed the grimy, gory aesthetic of Bloody Reunion for a bright fairy tale world. The stream offered on Netflix is pretty terrible, giving all movement a drunken, glitchy look, and subtitles are only provided if you watch it via computer. But if you can overlook the obnoxious streaming quality, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The house in the forest where most of the action takes place looks like a set out of a Wes Anderson movie: all soft blues, greens, yellows, and reds with quirky wallpaper, printed upholstery, and books and toys everywhere. The movie falls only one step short of being a Doctor Seuss book. The rabbit motif is present in almost every scene. The walls are adorned with cheerful (but creepy) paintings of people wearing animal masks (or are they animals doing human things?). Sometimes there are actual rabbit masks hanging on the wall, stuffed rabbits that seem to cover every surface in the house, and a rabbit cartoon that plays on a loop on TV.
The plot is relatively simple: a young man has a wreck on an isolated country road and a little girl takes him back to her family’s house so that he can get his bearings. He spends the night recuperating with the family, a mother and father with three children – two girls and a boy – and notices something a little off about them. The parents are chipper but nervous, while the children are too serious and knowing. The next day, he sets off through the woods to return to the road where his accident occurred, except that the forest is a magical labyrinth that sends him right back to the house. From that point, things get increasingly weird as the parents disappear and the children beg him not to leave them alone. Mystical forces (and a whole lot of guilt trips from the kids) conspire to keep him at the house. These “angelic” children are not what they seem.
A lot of the reviewers on Netflix have raised a question about the intended audience for this film. General creepiness and graphic scenes of child abuse make Hansel and Gretel too intense for younger viewers, but the fairy tale qualities, while creating an unnerving disconnect between visual cheeriness and dark emotional drama, kind of kills the suspense for older viewers. (I will note, however, that an early scene of long black hair spilling through the opening to the attic triggered my Ringu-induced PTSD. Shudder.) The movie is too long and might have benefited from cutting a lot of the push and pull between the protagonist’s attempts to leave and the children’s pleas for him to stay. After the fiftieth time he tells them that he has to get back to his dying mother and his pregnant girlfriend, and the children just pout (evilly) and say “You hate us! Why do you want to leave so badly! You’re just like all the other grown-ups!” my only response was to roll my eyes and pray that something new would happen.
The lead actor, Chun Jung-myung, is totally adorable, but his character is too passive to be interesting. Instead of panicking or getting angry about his situation, he sort of accepts all the weird shit that happens with a weary resignation and tries to reason patiently with the hellspawn. The child actors are all pretty remarkable at keeping up with the tonal shifts that require them to be sweet, then creepy, then vulnerable, then creepy again. And the late addition of a deliriously unhinged deacon played by Park Hee-soon provides an entertaining bit of scenery chewing.
It may sound like I have a lot of complaints about this movie, but I liked it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either in style or storytelling, and I regret not watching it on disc so that I could fully engage with the visual richness. It sags in the middle, becoming repetitive, but there’s enough interesting stuff in there to make it worth a look.
Bloody Reunion (also called To Sir, With Love)
Hansel and Gretel
Director Park Chan-wook makes films that are stylish, brutal, funny and surprisingly touching. He is best known for his 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which is part of a thematically (but not narratively) connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. More recently, he used his bloody aesthetic to put a new twist on the vampire genre with Thirst in 2009.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which was released after the trilogy but before Thirst, is a kinder, gentler affair, but still has Park’s characteristic bite underneath the candy-coated exterior. The story follows Young-goon, a girl in a mental institution who refuses to eat because she believes she is a cyborg. She talks to vending machines, meditates on the simple pragmatism of a boiler, and “recharges” with a battery between her index fingers. I’m a Cyborg would rest comfortably beside the work of Michel Gondry, with its romance between two damaged souls, quirky peripheral characters, and brightly-colored fantasy sequences with flying and singing.
If this all sounds a little too cute, you should know that the film opens with Young-goon slitting open her wrist so that she can insert wires into the wound; in the moments that follow, she gets electrocuted when she tries to plug herself in. Park lets us know right away that, even though this movie is whimsical, he’s not fucking around.
The movie focuses on another inhabitant of the hospital, Il-sun, a young man who wears masks, hops around like a bunny, believes he is vanishing, and proclaims himself anti-social. Although he claims to have no sympathy or care for anyone – and he does seem adept at manipulating the other patients’ delusions – he develops an interest in Young-goon and works desperately to convince her to eat before she dies of starvation.
(Tangent: I just learned that the actor who plays Il-sun is a very popular Korean pop star. That’s so exciting! He’s called Rain! And apparently he was also in Ninja Assassin, which I have not seen. But he is kind of fucking adorable in I’m a Cyborg, so I can see why all the girls would swoon for him.)
The way the film deals with mental illness is interesting, but potentially exploitative. The patients all seem to be relatively harmless (Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies notwithstanding) and mostly happy, making hospitals seems like quirk-fests full of zany and colorful characters. We have the woman who believes her “magic socks” can make her fly, the girl who yodels in her von Trapp fantasy, and a guy who walks backwards and apologizes for everything. For each person in this film, insanity is not so much a defect, but simply a world of his or her own making that happens to be at odds with the “normal” world. I’m kind of okay with the “quirkiness” of mental illness as presented here because, even though a lot of scenes are played for comedy, the the film presents the characters as they want to see themselves; Park treats them with sympathy and takes their desires seriously.
Il-sun may be the least crazy of them all because he seems to understand that the craziness, including his own, all comes down to world-building – which is why he’s so good at infiltrating everyone else’s world. He can make other people believe what he wants them to believe through the power of suggestion, and in the case of saving Young-goon from starvation, he convinces her to believe what she needs to believe in order to survive.
Verdict: CHARMING AS FUCK
Once October ended, I briefly debated whether I should continue writing about horror but then decided that I could experiment with dedicating each month to different types of films. Right now I’m on a Korean movie kick. Korean movies seem to segue nicely away from horror, with their wicked flare for gore and busting taboos.
I don’t really know a whole lot about Korean culture, and I’m definitely not a film scholar, but I know that South Korea has had something of a cinematic golden age in the last decade or so, producing interesting and globally successful directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. Bong is most well-known for the popular monster movie The Host, and Park for his cult-favorite Oldboy. Park in particular has gotten a lot of attention stateside recently, with Spike Lee beginning production on an American remake of Oldboy and Park himself debuting his first Hollywood film, Stoker, which releases early next year and stars Nicole Kidman.
It’s hard to say what draws me to Korean movies. They provide a nice alternative to the American aesthetic, with new cultural mores, twisty-turny plots, and run-times that can often try your patience (the 80-minute movie doesn’t seem to have caught on over there). But like a lot of American films (especially indies), they don’t hold anything back, whether it’s an unflinching kitchen-sink character drama or an action film with all the explicit sex and violence you can stomach. At least, that’s what I’ve observed so far.
The move from writing about horror to writing about Korean films is a little daunting. Horror is a genre I’ve grown up with and I’ve watched more scary movies than I could ever count; I’m very familiar and comfortable with the genre conventions. I’ve watched a decent amount of Korean movies, too, more than the average person, but not quite enough to make any coherent, intelligent statement about what defines these films, culturally or stylistically. A month won’t make me an expert, but I hope to start seeing some patterns.
These are the movies I have seen. The next ones on my to-watch list are I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and Joint Security Area (both films by Park) Feel free to suggest others that aren’t on the list that are worth tracking down:
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Memories of Murder
A Tale of Two Sisters
I Saw the Devil
The Good, the Bad, & the Weird