POSSESSED is a little confusing right from the moment you read the title, as the literal translation of the Korean title BOOL-SIN-JI-OK actually means something else. If you go in anticipating an exorcist-style demonic possession film, you’ve already assumed too much and are off course with where POSSESSED is headed. The Korean title’s literal translation amounts to: Disbelief in God = Hell, and once you grasp that, you’re on your way to understanding what will otherwise be lost in translation.
The story crafted by Lee Yong-Ju is actually so unorthodox and non-typical of a horror film plot that I myself spent a couple of days unraveling it until it made sense. Lee let it be known before the premiere that he had set out to create a horror film built around a strong foundation of story, and if you can understand what you are watching, he certainly hits his target. The problem is, most of the crowd in attendance had very little insight, aside from abstract speculation, as to what they had just seen.
A young college girl, Hee-Jin, receives a brief phone call in the middle of the night from her younger sister – all while in a semi-dreamlike state. The next morning, she awakens to another phone call – this time from her mother. Hee-Jin’s little sister So-Jin has gone missing.
Hee-Jin returns home and becomes immediately skeptical about the behavior of her very religious mother. Hee-Jin’s own disbelief puts her at odds with most everyone in the tenement who begin putting things in a religious light – it later being disclosed that many of the people in the apartment building, including mom, think that So-Jin is actually the savior, who can perform miracles, and will be resurrected as was Jesus himself, upon her death.
Police detective Tae-Hwan comes into the film, bringing with him a strong technical aspect to POSSESSED, which plays out like a one-man crime investigation. His pursuit of the missing young girl brings him across paths with everyone in the film, including Hee-Jin, whom he comes to suspect is in league with this mysterious disappearance and the persons in the apartment building. He himself has a young daughter in the hospital, who is dying from a fatal disease. Tae-Hwon carries with him the guilt of the lies he told his little girl, when he promised her at bedside that everything would be all right. He carries this fact to the end of the film where it matters in the resolution of the tale.
All of this comes together by the end of the film in a muddled mess wherein you’ll be trying to analyze the plot through possession cinema lenses. This is all due to the misleading title, and in all fairness, robs this movie of its clarity and should be changed. Luckily, Lee Yong-Ju explained exactly what he was portraying in the film at a Q&A that took place after the premiere.
“More-so than the aspect of not believing,” Lee explained, “I was more interested in religion and spirituality and how those kinds of characteristics manifest themselves in someone that doesn’t yet believe. And also that if your religious beliefs are different from another person, your communication can also stop between that other person and you. So, those ideas of spirituality happening to someone who is a non-believer, and the steps that happen along the way when they witness these events, is what I was more interested in.”
So what POSSESSED is, is the story of a non-believer, Hee-Jin, and her process of becoming a believer – the hells she endures in order for her belief to change. When you understand this, and watch the movie, everything makes sense. So, story-wise, POSSESSED is a triumph in South Korean filmmaking in the sense that this emerging film market is now becoming more promising, creating intricate horror themes and adapting a reverse-engineered Hollywood style approach to the art. The stork, the coughing fits, the apparent spirit that speaks toward the end – ample abstract events for the analyzing mind to chew on. BUT – while POSSESSED is a good story with horror elements, it lacks the punch you would expect from your average horror film.
Final analysis: While very stylish and advanced for a first time director, its pretty weak in the “horror” department, probably best described as a theological horror/drama. The “gruesome” deaths are suicides, the shock of which is nothing you haven’t endured before, offending more so those who typically don’t venture into the genre. Lee Yong-Ju delivers a mild, slow-burn, professional quality piece that is well directed, acted, lit, etc, with a strong story backbone that appreciatively moves away from the similarities of most J- and K-horror – but aside from noting it as a success in South Korean filmmaking, and feeling a slight tickle in your cerebrum, you wont feel any other effect.