Exhuma Review | From an Unmarked Grave

by Andrew Parker

Exhuma, a supernatural thriller that has been dominating the Korean box office for several weeks now, is an eerie, spiritual descent into ancestral and superstitious culture unlike anything audiences in the west are accustomed to. It’s part ghost story, part possession film, and part Korean history lesson. With so much going on, writer-director Jang Jae-hyun’s horror/mystery shouldn’t work, but thanks to an abundance of atmosphere and a confident clarity of vision, Exhuma is a work where it’s easy to see that the hype is real.

The newborn child of a wealthy Korean-American family in Los Angeles is dangerously sick, but doctors can’t quite figure out what the problem seems to be. With few places left to turn, the family seeks out the assistance of Hwa-rim (Kim Go-Eun), a psychic shaman and her heavily tattooed male apprentice, Bong-gil (Lee Do-Hyun). They quickly deduce that the family is the victim of “grave calling,” meaning a dead family member is ill at ease and trying to contact the living and exact some sort of revenge. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make some cash, but knowing that she’ll need help on this assignment, Hwa-rim turns to Kim Sang-duk (Oldboy and I Saw the Devil actor Choi Min-Sik), a geomancer skilled in the art of respectfully and spiritually exhuming and moving dead bodies from their resting places, and his funeral director assistant, Young-geun (Yoo Hai-Jin). Mr. Kim has extreme misgivings about this particular assignment, which requires the digging up of a secluded, unmarked grave on ancestral lands close to the North Korean border, and a job where the family in question demands that the casket and all of its contents be cremated immediately without being opened and no questions asked.

Naturally, through the process of everything, an evil spirit gets awakened and things start getting bloody and messy rather quickly after the slow burn place setting Jang brings to Exhuma. The layered storytelling, steeped in a great deal of mythology and culturally significant events, sometimes comes at expense of the characters. Outside of Mr. Kim, not much is known about who they are outside of their supernatural endeavours. Even learning about the afflicted family becomes difficult, as the film shifts in its second half to something almost completely different, and more in line with traditional scary movie fare. It’s always effective in terms of tone and pacing, but beyond Jang’s degree of specificity, there’s a noticeable lack of development.

But the devil (or ghosts) are found within those details. Exhuma rises and falls on the presentation of ancient rites and rituals, almost like it’s a supernatural procedural. That’s a refreshing approach to such a story, and every character and performer brings a specific set of skills to the mystery at hand, especially in the second half which pulls a nifty switcheroo on the audience and becomes something a lot more politically loaded and complex. A lot of these developments and rationalizations of psychic and spectral phenomena might be lost on some Western audiences, but the overall style and creepiness of Exhuma should keep them sufficiently riveted. 

Exhuma is now playing in Toronto (including at TIFF Lightbox), Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

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