Contorted, transcript of an on-stage introduction given at a screening for the London Korean Film Festival 2022
Contorted is concerned with the ineffable, deeply transgressive taboos of motherly abuse and filicide. As such, it falls into a line that can be traced back at least to the Ancient Greek tragedy (of which this film is a modern variant), and that has recently been seen in other Korean films like Kim Se-in’s The Apartment With Two Women (2021) and Jeong Ji-yeon’s The Anchor (2022) – all of which show both victimhood and vindictiveness as the legacies of women in a patriarchal world.
A lot of us first came to K-horror through Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, released in 2003, and Contorted certainly places itself in that film’s tradition. For it also features two sisters (and a brother) living in a psychologically fraught domestic situation where it is hard to know at which point exactly trauma and insanity end and supernatural malevolence begins. It opens with a fractured sequence of intercut scenes: on the one hand, a young Hee-woo (Kim Bo-min) visits a funeral parlour late at night with her father Hyun-min (Kim Min-jae) and witnesses something paranormal and menacing there; and on the other hand, back at the family’s high-rise apartment, Hee-woo’s mother Myung-hye (Seo Young-hee) wakes in a distraught state, and heads out in a daze to the balcony, and when she is stopped from stepping off the edge by her much younger daughter Ji-woo, the mother responds with an action so shocking that, regardless of whether it is memory or dream, it reveals something awfully wrong going on in Myung-hye’s addled psyche. This prologue is an impressionistic sketch of a family in peril and under threat, both from without and within.
Distracted, tired, flighty, prone to headaches and delusions, and damaged by unspoken, unspeakable past tragedy, Myung-hye is clearly suffering from mental illness, and on a cocktail of medication for her many problems. Her husband Hyun-min is himself under immense pressure, with problems getting work, with his integrity in question and with debts mounting, even as he struggles alone to keep the family on an even keel. Their son Dong-woo is in retreat from all the ambient tensions, taking refuge in his headphones and in his bedroom. Hee-woo has her own issues, doubly alienated both because she is the only adopted member of the family, and because she feels she needs to conceal from everyone else her alarming ability to see the dead and the otherworldly. Only the youngest child, sweet, smiling Ji-woo, seems oblivious to the family’s neurotic energy.
The Chois are a dysfunctional mess headed for trouble, and they find it when their deteriorating financial situation forces them to move from their city apartment to a mysteriously cheap home out in the country. Writer/director Kang Dong-hun has adapted his film from a novel by Jeon Gun-woo called The Contorted House, and once the Chois enter their new digs, the sense of contortion is palpable, with the layout of the building’s architecture, like that of the hotel in The Shining, never seeming to make sense to the eye. It is not just the queasily canted angles from which it is shot, but also a crooked asymmetry to the interior design of all the corridors, rooms and staircases where nothing ever quite squares. The skewed disorderliness of this arrangement seems a tangible reflection of a disturbed mind or minds. There is also that persistent loud banging sound coming – impossibly – from the padlocked shed around the back, which summons the different family members to adopt its primitive beat and to enter the dark, repressed spaces of the basement where ancient masks are put on and very bad things are dreamt up. This house with a history will come to resonate with a family that has its own troubled past, giving rise to a truly toxic stew.
So Contorted is an intense tale of guilt, resentment and madness. Whether it may also be a ghost story is up to you – but either way, this family’s unravelling is a wild, harrowing ride.
strap: Kang Dong-hun’s haunted house K-horror is an uncanny tale of two sisters, as well as of guilt, trauma, maternity and madness
My programme note: When Myung-hye (Seo Yeong-hee) moves into a remote, suspiciously cheap rental home with husband Hyun-min (Kim Min-jae) and children, her nightmares intensify and she repeatedly hears a strange noise coming from the locked shed. This is also heard by her adopted daughter Hee-woo (Kim Bomin), who has a special sensitivity to the other side.
Adapted from Jeon Gun-woo’s novel The Contorted House, but also drawing liberally (if dynamically) on both Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003), this horror feature from writer/director Kang Dong-hun (Pray, 2020) concerns a haunted house and a haunted family, where mental illness and domestic history merge into one. This hits the ground running, placing a child in harrowing peril, and its twisted narrative is sufficiently deft in recombining its borrowed tropes to wrong-foot even the most genre savvy.
© Anton Bitel