Hallyu Hell: Contemporary K-horror first published by Sight and Sound, December 2022
The advent of Korea’s Sixth Republic in 1987 brought an end to military dictatorship, the beginnings of direct democracy, and an associated relaxation of state censorship. These ripples of liberalisation would soon crest into the hallyu, or Korean Wave, in the Nineties, a period of intense, inventive artistic activity, and horror, though never absent from Korean filmmaking, would find a newly confident (and unexpurgated) voice, with Park Ki-hyung’s ghost story Whispering Corridors (1998), for example, using its setting in a girls’ high school to allegorise the closed authoritarian system from which Korea was now emerging.
This movement neatly dovetailed with a development abroad, as Tartan Video started focusing on the distribution of Asian features, eventually launching their Asia Extreme label (2001-8). While narrowing Western views of what Asian cinema had to offer, this label had a much broader remit than mere horror, and so it perfectly accommodated the experiments in genre-blurring that many Korean filmmakers were conducting. Here Kim Ki-duk’s hermetic BDSM parable The Isle (2000) could sit alongside Kim Jee-woon’s superlative psychological ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), and Park Chan-wook’s taboo-busting mystery-thriller OldBoy (2003), Jang Joon-hwan’s torturously class-riven fantasy Save The Green Planet! (2003) and Kong Su-chang’s R-Point (2004) – a melancholic reimagining of The Thing in the Vietnam War – could all be found on the same DVD shelf.
The beauty of this was that it was broadening our very notion of what horror is, and can be, so that, yes, Park Chan-wook could recombine such disparate sources as Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Requin, Bob Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Wong kar-wai’s In The Mood for Love (2000) into his vampiric melodrama Thirst (2009). It is also how more recent, publicly feted titles like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), though not in any way conventional horror films, can certainly include strong horror elements within their plotting. Hallyu directors were deftly mixing and matching disparate genres, and the new umbrella term ‘Asia extreme’ was giving them an international platform for their work, while inuring western viewers to their richly eclectic mode of filmmaking.
If the K-horror of the Nineties and Noughties recombined familiar subgenres in unexpected ways to defamiliarise them, and relied on the local industry’s technical nous to navigate deftly its often abrupt tonal shifts, the K-horror of the last decade or so has generally settled into more conventional forms, and distinguished itself from other nations’ horror cinema by painting its borrowed tropes in local colours. Perhaps the most internationally successful K-horror of recent times has been Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse feature Train To Busan (2016), whose very title advertises localism. Prior to its release, Yeon was best known as a director of bleak animated political allegories like his extraordinary debut feature The King of Pigs (2011), and Train To Busan was in fact released in tandem with Yeon’s universe-sharing, animated feature Seoul Station, which traced the same undead outbreak among the homeless and marginalised in the Korean capital – and which again, even in its title, bound events to a specifically local setting. Yet it was Train to Busan that would win over foreign audiences, no doubt in part for being live-action and less unremittingly bleak, and for the way that it spryly intermixes a barrelling pace with some stinging social commentary and eleventh-hour sentiment. Its popularity would spawn not just a Mad Max 2/Escape From New York-inflected sequel Peninsula (2020) from Yeon, but a rash of other zombie titles hoping to cash in on its success, like Lee Min-jae’s The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale (2019) and Cho Il-hyung’s #Alive (2020). Curiously both the latter and Johnny Martin’s American zombie film Alone (2020), produced simultaneously, were developed from the same screenplay by Matt Naylor – although the Korean version was released a few months earlier, and received a massive boost though its release on Netflix during a (thematically resonant) lockdown.
Indeed, a good way to measure the international influence and impact of K-horror is to track foreign remakes, actual or projected. For example, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is better known than the Korean film it reimagines, Kim Jee-woon’s dark domestic satire The Quiet Family (2000) – and if the Japanese remake loses the original’s subtextual grounding in paranoia about invasion from the North, it gains a wild claymation prologue and genre-busting song-and-dance numbers. Something was lost in translation when Charles and Thomas Guard reimagined A Tale of Two Sisters with The Uninvited (2009), or when Spike Lee ‘reinterpreted’ OldBoy (itself originally adapted from a Japanese manga) in his 2013 version, as both these films missed the originals’ manic magic. More recently, a long-rumoured Hollywood remake of Train to Busan has so far failed to materialise, perhaps in part because, once stripped of its Korean setting, the story would risk becoming just another in the glut of American zombie movies. Similarly long rumoured for a remake, Na Hong-jin’s slippery, superlative tale of contagiously destructive small-town values The Wailing (2016) is, one suspects, too steeped in Korea’s particular brand of religious pluralism to accommodate relocation to another culture’s cinematic idioms.
Where Asia Extreme has long since disappeared, K-horror has found new avenues to reach non-Korean viewers. Having already capitalised on countless K-dramas that lend themselves so well to binge-watching, Netflix now regularly streams, and even commissions, K-horror series too – whether the undead period politics of Kingdom (2019- ), the modern high-school zombies from All Of Us Are Dead (2022), the apartment block monsters of Sweet Home (2020) or Yeon Sang-ho’s dark fantasy Hellbound (2021) – while horror platform Shudder boasts an ever-expanding selection of contemporary features from Korea, now considered a key, and consistently compelling, part of international genre cinema.
Festivals are at it too. Besides featuring Jeong Ji-yeon’s extraordinary Anchor (2022) – a mesmerically twisty ghost story about a female news presenter unravelling under the legacy of patriarchy – in its contemporary programme, this year’s London Korean Film Festival will also for the first time offer a special strand showcasing several of the nation’s more challenging, psychologically intense and culturally engaged new K-horror titles. These include Kang Park’s excellent post-partum thriller Seire (2021), observing and breaching traditional rituals of newborn protection; Sim Deok-geon’s time-collapsing haunted building horror Guimoon: The Lightless Door (2021); Jang Dong-hun’s fairytale of domestic madness and filicide Contorted (2022); and Park Sye-young’s category-resistant experiment The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (2022), about a fungus that evolves inside a mattress, vampirically assimilating the forms of those who sleep or have sex on it in a drive to become human-like. With innovation and craft like this, the K-horror wave keeps on rolling.