Seire (2021)

Seire screened for the London Korean Film Festival 2021

Seire, also know as samchil-il, is a 21-day ritual period of post-partum confinement for a newborn baby, during which time protective saekki ropes are hung over the threshold, special dietary measures are observed, only immediate family are allowed to visit, and the new parents, if they must go out at all, are expected to avoid ‘anything unusual’ and definitely to steer clear of ill-omened funerals. Death has no place in new life.

Under the influence of her own ageing mother, new mother Hae-mi (Sim Eun-woo) is a great believer in tradition, and maintains these strictures to ward off any evil from her baby girl I-su, while Hae-mi’s husband Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) regards all these practices as superstitious mumbo jumbo. Yet it is Woo-jin who is plagued with nightmares and even waking hallucinations, which mostly involve him cutting into an apple and finding it rotten to the core inside. Whether this apple is a symbol of death and putrefaction besetting this family, or more a reflection of Woo-jin’s stressed-out, sleepless state as he adjusts to becoming a father, there is the sense from early on that this new set-up which ought be an Eden of domestic happiness is instead already at risk of being poisoned with a rot from within.

As in a fairy tale, established rules are quickly transgressed. Woo-jin gets a text message about the funeral of his ex-girlfriend Se-young (Ryu Abel), and not only goes to it against his wife’s advice, but discovers there that Se-young has an identical twin sister Ye-young (also Ryu Abel) whose uncanny appearance – like a living copy of the dead woman – and odd behaviour most certainly constitute the kind of strangeness that the new father is meant to be avoiding at all costs. Woo-jin will not simply be able to leave these entanglements at the door.

After Woo-jin has broken the terms of Seire, things start going wrong. Hae-mi’s pregnant sister who lives next door suddenly falls ill, as does baby I-su – and although writer/director Park Kang carefully plants hints and clues at logical explanations for everything that occurs, the ominous visions experienced by exhausted, anxious Woo-jin deepen and intensify to the point where he too comes to believe that the dead Se-young has come to collect her due and to steal his baby’s breath. 

There from the start, Hae-mi’s superstition and Woo-jin’s scepticism are the poles along which the ambiguities entrenched in Seire play out, leaving the viewer to choose between twin readings – supernatural or rational – of the same sinuous, slippery story. On any reading, though, Woo-jin is a man haunted by his doubts about fatherhood, and by his unresolved feelings of guilt for not having been ready to follow his ex into nest building, even if he leapt almost immediately after splitting with her into a parallel domestic life with his wife. Se-young may have looked just like her sister, but the addled Woo-jin also sees her face on Hae-mi’s and others’. For he is not quite able to square his present with his past, or the living with the dead, and so is cursed to have to keep accommodating Se-young and their shared history in his own apartment, or at least in his mind, beyond both the grave and, we suspect, a mere 21-day period.

Eschewing sensationalism or special affects, Park Kang’s Seire is a mature film about an immature character, and a subtle, serious, slow-burn exposé of one man’s inner psyche, rotten whether awake or dreaming. Its carefully sustained equivocations and toxic emotions recall Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), and its focus on a newborn recalls any number of maternity horrors – but really it is paternity that is being closely observed here, flaws and all, as Woo-jin’s ‘bad apple’ father projects and perhaps even passes his own internal conflicts and weaknesses on to the next generation.

strap: Fatherhood is frightening in Park Kang’s sinuous, slippery feature, where a newborn’s arrival engenders superstition, paranoia & guilt

My programme note: Seire (aka samchil-il) is the 21-day period of postpartum confinement for a newborn and its mother, during which special dietary measures are observed, saekki ropes are hung over the threshold, visits are restricted, and family members are supposed to avoid anything ill-omened. Recent father Jin Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) ignores the superstitions of his wife Hae-mi (Sim Eun-woo) and breaks a taboo by attending the funeral of his ex-girlfriend Se-young (Ryu Abel), presided over by her identical twin Ye-young.

Has the baby I-su come under a curse from the breath-hungry dead, or is Woo-jin working through his own conflicted feelings and deep-seated guilt about having become a father? Eschewing sensationalism or special effects, Park Kang’s intense, ambiguous feature is a subtle, serious, slow-burn exposé of one man’s inner psyche, both waking and dreaming.

© Anton Bitel