Have you ever viewed a film and thought to yourself early on, I know how this will end? I must confess to having made this assumption at the beginning of Seire, in which a knife slices open an apple that is revealed to be rotten to the core. But director Kang Park skillfully disabuses us of this notion in a compelling film that merges death and trauma with native Korean custom and spirituality. 

U-jin and Hye-mi are the parents of a newborn boy, I-su. Korean tradition stipulates that for the first three weeks of the baby’s life (seire, “three weeks,” also known as samch’il, “three sevens,” that is, twenty-one days) the parents must suspend a straw rope over the door to their home to ward off malign spirits. They must also observe a number of taboos, one of the strongest of which is to avoid funerals. But U-jin, the father, has just received notification of the death of a person very close to him. In spite of protestations from Hye-mi, the mother, he insists on attending the memorial vigil, explaining that the deceased was a college friend and that he will simply pay his respects and return home. We soon learn, though, that the deceased was in fact Se-yŏng, U-jin’s lover for six years, and we are introduced to Ye-yŏng, her twin sister, who quickly assumes a sinister presence in U-jin’s psyche.

With this disclosure, the film gives way to an increasingly jarring counterpoint of delusion and reality involving unexpected pregnancy, miscarriage, suicide, and trauma. Se-yŏng’s miscarriage, which drove her to take her own life, was secretly welcomed by U-in. But now he recalls her declaration to him that she would give him everything except the baby. This recollection is sharpened by Ye-yŏng’s confession to U-jin that she feels herself merging with the persona of her dead twin. A further complication: Hye-mi’s sister and her husband live across the hall from U-jin and Hye-mi’s apartment, and the sister is pregnant. U-jin, the dutiful brother-in-law, is the beneficiary of herbal tonics salutary for both the new mother (Hye-mi) and her expectant sister, but after partaking of the concoction the sister miscarries. There follows a series of graphic delusions in which U-jin becomes convinced that the deceased Se-yŏng is stealing the breath of life of the infant I-su, who has come down with an unexplainable fever. At the end of the film we are given a choice by the director: Will Hye-mi remove herself and I-su from U-jin’s life, or will U-jin be forgiven and find closure?

Practitioners of literature and film criticism in Korea find it convenient to categorize the works they evaluate, and Seiri is classified as a “horror” film. It might be thought of more accurately as a study of trauma in which native custom and belief clash with contemporary standards of marriage and parenthood. The acting is superb, and I-su must be one of the cutest babies in film history.

Seiri is distributed by Film Movement (iflmmovement.com) to rent or buy. Available on Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon and Google  Play.

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