This is, more or less, the text of my introduction to the screening of Horror Stories (9 March 2017) as part of Colette Balmain’s series of overlooked K-horror for the Korean Cultural Centre UK.Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this evening’s screening of Horror Stories, the fourth film in Chills and Thrills programme of overlooked genre titles for Korean Film Nights.
Horror Stories is an omnibus whose segments are each helmed by different filmmakers. Now, if you bring together a body of directors, and get each to contribute their own episode to a loosely – or sometimes tightly – linked collection of short films, then you have the perfect formula for showcasing the work of multiple talents, all the while exploiting their differences to create variety in the work’s overall structure and texture- even at the risk of a certain ‘bittiness’.
Over the years, the horror genre has certainly been no stranger to these multi-director anthology films. Starting with 1945’s Dead of Night there has been Spirits of the Dead (1968), Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983), Night Train To Terror (1985), Two Evil Eyes (1990), Body Bags (1993), H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (1993), Campfire Tales (1997) and Trapped Ashes (2006). The ‘Asia Extreme’ movement of the early Noughties also spawned two Pan-Asian multi-director horror anthologies – Three in 2002 and its sort-of sequel Three… Extremes in 2004, to which Korean New Wavers Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook respectively contributed. Confusingly, though the earlier film, Three was remarketed in the UK as Three… Extremes 2.
All these anthology films, however, were released sporadically, with never more than three or four appearing in any given decade – until 2011, when Little Deaths, The Theatre Bizarre and Chillerama all came in rapid succession, and then 2012, when V/H/S premièred at Sundance, and The ABCs of Death at Toronto. It is in this context, with horror omnibus films not only proliferating, but also garnering a certain festival respectability, that two Korean genre anthologies were released in 2012: first Yim Pil-sung and Kim Jee-woon’s Doomsday Book, and then this evening’s film, Horror Stories. The latter had its première at the Puchon International Film Festival, and two sequels (in title if not so much in content) would follow, in 2013 and 2016.
Each of the four short films that constitute Horror Stories could be viewed in isolation and enjoyed in its own right – but it is the fifth wraparound story which lends all of them a broader coherence as an ensemble, a coherence that is not always present in this type of film. This framing story’s director, Min Kyu-dong, has proven a jack of all genres over the years, but his debut feature in 1999 was the high-school horror Memento Mori, making Horror Stories something of a return home for him.
In the opening to Horror Stories, high school student Ji-won (Kim Ji-won) wakes up bound in a basement of terrors, the captive of a deranged, silent killer (Yoo Yeon-seok) who insists, in written messages, that she tell him scary stories. Listening to these, he informs her menacingly, is the only way he is able to get to sleep – apart from drawing someone’s blood. Under threat of death, Ji-won is cast as a figure like Scheherezade from the One Thousand and One Nights – except that Ji-won’s aim is less to keep her abductor entertained than to put him to sleep, so that she can somehow escape her confines alive.
Not only do the four Horror Stories that follow comprise the tales of terror that Ji-won tells her captor, but they are all intimate reflections of her own immediate anxieties. After all, the first three stories concern men who – like Ji-won’s captor – play cat and mouse with children or women whom they intend to murder; and all four stories unfold in increasingly claustrophobic spaces like the basement where Ji-won has found herself trapped. Sleep too is a constant preoccupation of the tales, which are full of dream sequences as characters nod off without realising that they are no longer awake. Particular items in the basement – wigs, a petrol canister, a syringe, dolls, slices of (possibly human) meat, even a bite mark on the abductor’s forearm – all inspire Ji-won’s storytelling, appearing as key props in her tales – tales which are always, at some level, about her own horrifying predicament and sense of entrapment. Ji-won’s deeply irrational insistence, in introducing several of the tales, that they come from her personal experience confirms the impression that these horror stories, in all of which which life hangs by a thread, are, at least figuratively, very much Ji-won’s own.
The first story, Don’t Answer The Door, is also my personal favourite. Directed by Jung Bum-sik, who had previously co-directed the 2007 K-horror Epitaph, it follows Sun-yi (Kim Hyun-soo) and her younger brother Moon (No Kang-min), left alone at night in their luxurious apartment as they await the return of their mother from work. With her head full of the Korean folktale The Sun and the Moon, in which a Big Bad tiger devours and impersonates a mother to gain access to her young daughter and son, the nervous Sun-yi becomes convinced that someone or something is trying to break in – while in the meantime vengeful forces are mobilising beyond the children’s comprehension. The result is an uncanny blend of fairytale horror, child peril, the supernatural and, when you least expect it, something much more adult, even political.
The second story, Endless Flight, comes from Im Dae-woong, who had previously directed 2006’s school horror Bloody Reunion. As an apprehended serial killer (Jin Tae-hyun) gets loose on the plane that is transporting him to Seoul, he hunts down the cops and crew aboard, while himself being pursued by the ghost of a former victim. This segment offers a variant on the airborne thrills of Con Air (1997) or Red Eye (2005), and, as it leaves its resolution literally ‘up in the air’, it perhaps most closely mirrors Ji-won’s harrowing, unresolved circumstance as she narrates it.
Like the first story, the third, Secret Recipe, builds itself around a received Korean folktale. For it is drawn loosely from the Cinderella-like traditional tale of Kongjwi and Patjwi, but has been updated to a generation obsessed with body image, plastic surgery, material consumerism and eternal youth. Here, stepsisters Gong-ji (Jong Eun-chae) and Bak-ji (Nam Bo-ra) vie for the hand of the superwealthy Min (Bae Soo-bin), never pausing to ask how he has retained his youthful looks, or what happened to his many previous wives. Beautifully designed and satisfyingly bloody, this is the only segment whose director, Hong Ji-young, is both a woman, and had not worked before in the horror genre. Hong’s only prior title had been The Naked Kitchen, a romantic drama from 2009 – with which Secret Recipe in fact shares a kitchen and a love triangle at its centre, seasoned with a pinch of salt and added Dumplings (2004).
We tend to think of 2016 as the year when Korean cinema discovered the zombie with Yeon Sang-ho’s diptych Train to Busan and Seoul Station – but in fact the other 2012 genre anthology from Korea, Doomsday Book, opened with a zombie apocalypse, and Horror Stories ends with one. Its fourth and final story, Ambulance to the Death Zone, mostly confines itself to the interior of a rescue vehicle, as the occupants – a driver, a doctor, a nurse, a mother and her ailing young daughter – come to blows over the possibility that the girl might already be infected, and a deadly danger to everyone else aboard. Twin brothers Kim Gok and Kim Sun, who had already established their horror credentials with 2010’s Anti Gas Skin and 2011’s White: The Melody of the Curse, drive the action along at a rattling pace, while cynically exposing the destructive power of fear itself.
I hope you enjoy Horror Stories, and trust that it will not put you to sleep.
© Anton Bitel