Blue-hued beams of light bounce off a thick matte of twisted black hair. Through the forest of strands a single eye peers toward her schoolgirl prey as floods of inky water consume a stilted scream.
This is cliché in the universe of the J-Horror set—a tangled web of images, moods, styles and stories that owe themselves to a modern interpretation of Asian folklore, most notably collected in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. The Kwaidan is as much a playbook for the skeleton of a modern horror film, as Hideo Nakata’s ultra influential RINGU and DARK WATER films or Takashi Shimizu’s unending JU-ON series. Each film feature elements of the same legends that fill pages of the Kwaidan—stories of vengeful spirits and deadly tides—and each new film that comes seems too steeped in tradition to break the mold.
THE GHOST—a title that is simple enough—does little to reinterpret the classic eastern ideology. It too features overflowing sinks, and raven-locked specters terrorizing a group of teenage friends. But, contained within the stone-carved customs of cultural myth South Korean director Tae-kyeong Kim has still managed to provide an entertaining evening of unforgotten grudges and otherworldly revenge.
Originally released in 2004 as REYONG—THE GHOST concerns the tale of Ji-won (Ha-neul Kim) a college sophomore studying sociology and suffering from acute selective amnesia. Ji-won cannot recall the past few years of her life, her home, her friends and a terrible secret that won’t stay buried. As this lost girl attempts to move forward and embrace a bright future, she discovers that the members of her old High School clique are turning up dead—all victims of an apparent drowning on dry land. Now, the missing pieces of her past are seeping back into the present and painting a picture of catastrophic and cruel twist of fate that threatens to destroy Ji-won’s idyllic new existence.
We don’t generally get to talk about twist endings when we discuss the merits of Asian horror cinema. The tales are often told in a manner wherein the mechanism of the story is almost never revealed until the film is wildly into throes of the third act. So, the question becomes, when does a twist ending become a twist ending if you always expect the revelation to come that late in the game? The answer comes when you least expect it and THE GHOST offers that kind of change up. Not a cheap “look ma, no hands” styled turn of events, but a well-played and subtle switch of expectations.
While the film has it’s highlights, it certainly traipses through the lowlights as well and both of THE GHOST’s major flaws bookend the plot—clearly burdening the overall success of the story. The opening scene sets a stage for a production that shouldn’t be as good as it is. In a dark room, a group of girls use their Ouija board to bring a spirit forth—inadvertently causing the death of the lead girls sister. The scene is cookie-cutter J-horror and hardly representative of the rest of the production. The closing frames of the film exist to inform the audience that the tale is not yet complete. It’s part a parcel to the horror genre as a whole to have a final frame wink and nudge—ostensibly to keep fans talking, or in the US market prep the viewer for an inevitable succession of sequels. It rarely, if ever, works as planned and in the case of THE GHOST, it’s an eye-roll inducing moment of obvious plot baiting.
Asian horror hardly ever plays with its success formula. It knows what has worked for over a hundred years and it revels in its ability to continually recreate that magic on the screen. While it can be easy for foreign viewers to feel trapped in a rut of ghostly girls and terrified teens bathed in cold lighting schemes, periodically filmmakers use the storytelling medium of the cinema to transcend the conventions and deliver a spooky story that captures the heart of the tales collected so long ago. THE GHOST is hardly the most original film you’ll likely ever see, but fans of the Kwaidan would recognize that the same charge could be levied at Shimizu and Nakata for their interpretations of the classic campfire stories of the East. In the end, content is king and Tae-kyeong Kim’s “GHOST” more than delivers on measured expectations.