EXHUMA Review: Digs Up Ghoulish Thrills in Spades

Contributor; Seoul, South Korea (@pierceconran)
EXHUMA Review: Digs Up Ghoulish Thrills in Spades

In the smash hit Exhuma, four people dig a hole. Things don't turn out well - digging up corpses can do that - so they keep digging themselves in deeper. Unsurprisingly, things go from bad to worse.

A rich Korean family in LA fly in a pair of young shamans (Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun) to solve their supernatural woes but when the pair connect the bizarre events to the family's buried ancestor back in Korea, they return and team up with a grizzled geomancer (Choi Min-sik) and a wily undertaker (Yu Hae-jin) to dig up and burn the corpse and bring the supernatural happenings to an end.

While many have likened it to The Wailing, another Korean thriller featuring shamans and a mysterious Japanese connection that turned into a surprise box office hit, this third film from occult filmmaker Jang Jae-hyun is a far more straightforward affair. It's a pulpy investigative thriller, spiked with gruesome images, and leavened by the banter traded by its popular stars, yet (ahem) dig beneath its well-tuned commercial attributes and you may also unearth something else.

Following his debut nine years ago, director Jang has churned out one of the most specific filmographies in mainstream Korean cinema. All his films deal with religion, death and the afterlife, harvesting the fear that sprouts forth from the unknowable connections between them. Each explores different faiths and practices in a way that makes them feel like cinematic manifestations of someone investigating various supernatural beliefs as he grapples with his own metaphysical questions.

Jang's debut The Priests, an expansion of his short 12th Assistant Deacon, got the ball rolling by examining catholicism and the supernatural. Though as competent and hugely successful as it undoubtedly was, it was hard not to write it off as a Korean riff on The Exorcist. Perhaps we can imagine the first-time filmmaker as the young deacon, the novice exorcist portrayed by Gang Dong-won who is introduced to the world of the occult by a senior priest - Kim Yun-seok doing his best to channel Max von Sydow.

Investigative mystery-thriller Svaha: The Sixth Finger explored similar themes and yet it gave us something more original and exciting. It was also more sprawling and less focussed, which in turn may have had something to do with its lower grosses, though it is without question the better and bolder film. It feels like Jang wrote himself into the film, existing vicariously through Lee Jung-jae's supernatural investigator, who immerses himself in the worlds of shamanism, Buddhism and catholicism as the idiosyncrasies of each faith fight for narrative real estate.

I'm not sure if any one character in Exhuma is the Jang stand-in. It could well be that he has inserted himself in pieces into the story through all of them. Though if pushed to choose one I would probably have to go with the undertaker, the most flawed and normal character in the quartet, as well as the one who most closely fits the role of observer.

While the comparisons to The Wailing are understandable, for me the Korean film it shares the most DNA with is Kim Jee-woon's horror-comedy debut The Quiet Family. Now there's a film with a lot of grave-digging, and just like Exhuma, the digging invariably leads to more problems. It also leads to the past. The Quiet Family alludes to generational trauma, including the oppressive atmosphere of Korea in the 1980s and the very recent IMF Crisis (at the time the film was made). Exhuma, led by characters who also share a family-like dynamic, stretches much further back with its exploration of historical trauma.

Yet while Exhuma surely features layers that are very important to Director Jang, for most viewers the film works as an exercise in mood and suspense and carefully doled out revelations. Given its fairly straightforward story, it's on the long side at 135 minutes, but that's not really an issue as the film's six-chapter structure evokes the plotting of a modern streaming TV series. The episodic feel is most acutely felt about halfway through when the primary obstacle appears to have been overcome and the story winds down, only for a greater foe to suddenly emerge and kick things back into gear.

Stylistically the film comes alive in its set pieces, like the big 'gut' (shaman ritual) that takes place surprisingly early on, but if we are going to compare this to something like The Wailing, the visuals come up short. Rather than evocative and unsettling, the film's horror is fun and superficial. A friend compared it to The Pope's Exorcist, a simple and delightful little occult time-passer from last year, and I'm inclined to agree.

Mid-budget thrillers have long been the bread-and-butter of the Korean film industry, beefing up its box office receipts when the going's good and propping it up in its down periods and boy if there was ever a down period, we're living it now. As this imperfect but thoroughly entertaining film makes its way to an enormous tally that will probably top ten million viewers (out of 50 million Korean residents) I hope that local studios remember that these are the films that give Korean cinema its charm and get people into multiplexes.


  • Jae-hyun Jang
  • Jae-hyun Jang
  • Lee Do-hyun
  • Choi Min-sik
  • Kim Go-eun
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gutjang jae-hyunKim Go-eunLee Do-hyunmz generationoccultshamanJae-hyun JangChoi Min-sikHorrorMysteryThriller

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