Friday, April 23, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Possessed

South Korea is considered the most Christian of Asian nations, in terms of population percentages, so a Korean horror movie that engages and subverts Christian themes presumably knows what it is doing. Though hardly approaching Exorcist territory, the religious motifs of Lee Yong-ju’s Possessed (trailer here) might distinguish the film from run of the mill k-horror, but should still satisfy genre aficionados when it screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival as a Cinemania (formerly Midnight) selection.

Largely estranged from her evangelical mother, Hee-jin rarely visits home. However, when her younger sister So-jin disappears after placing a mysterious call to her cell phone, the overworked college student returns to their drab apartment. It is immediately obvious something is not right in the building. In addition to all the eerie lighting and sound effects, the neighbors seem to be committing suicide in the most outlandish methods.

Rather than call the police, Hee-jin’s mother relies on faith. She is convinced her prayers already saved the young girl once, concluding her daughter is in some way marked for greatness by God. Hee-jin is more practical, but the cynical cop on the case hardly inspires confidence. Throw in a creepy shaman, two attractive frenemy neighbors, and a mounting body count and it all adds up to some relatively ambitious k-horror.

Make no mistake, Possessed is strictly genre fare, but the execution is above average. Lee Yong-ju, who served as an assistant director on Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, has a clear intuitive understanding of horror movie mechanics. Wisely, he shows little, deriving the chills through mystery and suggestion. It is not until the final ten minutes that Possessed breaks down showing too much to maintain its sinister vibe, but frankly that is well above the k-horror industry standard.

At times, Possessed is decidedly hostile to Christianity, particularly the apparently fundamentalist variety practiced by Hee-jin’s mother. While one could argue it takes an equally dim view of alternative faiths, it is Evangelicals that spend most of the film squarely in its crosshairs. That might be problematic, but it also adds a layer of significance to the fright feature.

Possessed also benefits from a strong cast that plays the genre material deadly seriously. Nam Sang-mi avoids most of the horror heroine traps, coming across as a believable, disbelieving protagonist. In smaller supporting roles, Oh Ji-eun and Jang Young-nam also make strong impressions as the neighbors harboring their own secrets.

For those unfamiliar with k-horror, Possessed might not be the perfect starter film. However, those looking for moody and manipulative frights and can handle subtitles as well as some hot-button religious content should find Possessed nicely suits their tastes. It screens during Tribeca tonight (4/23), tomorrow (4/24), Sunday (4/25), and next Saturday (5/1).