Why are horror movies from South Korea often uniquely harrowing, tragic, and beautiful? Whether you’re already a fan or a complete beginner to Korean horror cinema, you’ll doubtless learn some fascinating answers to this question in a screening and film talk series from SIFF this Halloween month.
From October 8 to 30, a series of four Korean horror films programmed by Asian cinema specialist Hannah Baek will screen at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. For those who want to dive even deeper, each film will be followed the next day by a film talk from Baek exploring thematic connections and cultural context of the films, including discussing a second recommended movie for viewers to seek out.
Together, the screenings and lectures are themed around different types of monster: Ghosts, succubi, murderers, devils from traditional shamanism, a Godzilla-like beast, zombies and viruses.
Baek wasn’t a huge horror fan growing up. But a class on horror cinema at Northwest Film Forum opened her up to the latent symbolism and social commentary in the genre. Baek has a master’s degree from Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program, where she studied gender queerness in the “Dark Ages” of 1970s South Korean cinema. Baek said her own Korean heritage and interest in Asian cinema led her to an appreciation of the unique qualities of Korean horror cinema, one of which is a tragic undercurrent.
“Korean film, as a national industry, has had melodrama as one of its main genres and main moods, kind of at its heart,” Baek said. “When I’ve watched a lot of Korean horror films, I’m not just struck by the chills and the thrills but just the absolute sense of tragedy….If you want to cry or scream, they’re going to make you do both.”
Baek’s approach to curating the four films in this October series was: “Heavy hitters, only – I want to hit the coolest, scariest horror films.”
The first film playing at SIFF Cinema Egyptian in Baek’s series is A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), directed by Kim Jee-woon. This stylish Gothic film follows a teenage girl returning home from treatment in a mental institution, where she faces hauntings connected to her family’s dark past. Baek’s companion lecture will also discuss Memento Mori (1999), directed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong, a film which includes overt LGBTQ+ themes – unusual in Korean horror cinema.
Both films center on the figure of the ghostly woman who was wronged in life, a trope from Korean folklore. Usually, she was murdered or her children killed, Baek said, and “she comes back to wreak vengeance on whoever wronged her.”
The female ghost trope has deep resonance in South Korea’s modern history. “South Korea has gone through — a lot of this is my personal commentary here – a lot of very traumatizing historical events over just the past 100 or so years,” Baek said, including colonization by Japan, American military intervention in the Korean War, and a series of dictatorships. “So, there’s a lot of wrongs and tragedy. And I think that gender is a fantastic way to analyze those kinds of power dynamics.”
In the second week of the series, themed around “Succubi and Killers,” SIFF will screen The Housemaid (1960), directed by Kim Ki-young, and considered one of the greatest South Korean films of all time. In this film, “a bizarre and seductive housemaid systematically destroys her employers’ world,” according to SIFF’s description. The film was a launching pad for Korean horror cinema and progenitor of important settings and motifs, Baek said.
In her talk, Baek will discuss the film alongside the director Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). Chan-wook is known for Oldboy (2003), The Handmaiden (2016), and Decision to Leave (2022). “He’s another filmmaker who’s really defined contemporary Korean horror,” Baek said.
The third week of the series explores fear of the Other through South Korea’s history of Japanese colonization and American imperialism, manifested “through monstrous metaphors like devils and literal Godzilla-esque monsters,” Baek said.
In The Wailing (2016), directed by Na Hong-jin, a virus-like entity is spreading through a rural village. Seeking a scapegoat, villagers point fingers at a newcomer, an old man from Japan. The film comments on negative sentiment toward Japan in South Korea. The virus, or possession, also signifies an “overarching fear of invasion of your body by this kind of unknowable entity,” said Baek. The Wailing is Baek’s favorite film in the series, and she thinks it may be the scariest of them all.
Baek’s film talk that week will also include discussion of The Host (2006), directed by Bong Joon-ho, known internationally as the director of Parasite in 2019. In The Host, American scientists at the army base in Seoul conducting chemical weaponry experiments dump biohazard waste into the Han River running through the city. A mutated monster is created, which then terrorizes Seoul. “You could interpret it as a very literal condemnation of American presence in Seoul in Korea, creating this terror that is causing the loss of Korean lives and destroying the city,” Baek said. The film also explores family and reckoning with tragedy.
On October 29, the series concludes with a screening of zombie apocalypse movie Train to Busan (2016), directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. In this film, passengers on a high-speed train try to survive as a zombie apocalypse breaks out across the Korean peninsula.
Train to Busan, an emotionally heavy film, might be the most popular Korean horror film ever made, especially for American audiences, Baek said. In her subsequent lecture on October 30, Baek will also discuss the lighter horror comedy Zombie for Sale (2019), directed by Lee Min-jae. In it, a zombie shows up in a small town and bites a family patriarch. It turns out the bite makes the man some 20 years younger. People realize they can start monetizing the zombie’s de-aging bite. “I thought it was a very interesting combination of comedy and satire against capitalism, using a zombie,” Baek said. “The zombies in this film, in my interpretation, are sort of standing for the crush of late stage capitalism, which Korea is definitely skyrocketing into.” At the same time, Baek notes, making money off the zombie may be a meta commentary on cinema itself
One of Baek’s goals for the series is to complicate simple genre boundaries that people are familiar with from American horror cinema. Some of the films in her series, and in Korean cinema at large, are “horror-adjacent — sort of grotesque or disturbing or upsetting.” Genre tropes popular from Hollywood movies might appear very differently in the Korean cultural context.
“So many Korean horror films are truly beautiful, artistically really spectacular,” Baek said. “And as a person who grew up on Hollywood cinema, it will always surprise you, because they aren’t following the formulas you’re used to.”
Information on SIFF’s Korean Horror series, including content warnings and where to buy tickets to the screenings and lectures, can be found at: https://www.siff.net/programs-and-events/film-talks/korean-horror. Weekly themed costumes are highly encouraged!
For those who want to read up on the subject, Baek recommends the book Korean Horror Cinema, edited by Alison Peirse and Daniel Martin. She also recommends the YouTube channel of the Korean Film Archive (https://www.youtube.com/@KoreanFilm) to find Korean movies horror and otherwise, and the website Asian Movies Online (https://asian-movies-online.com) as a resource to watch a wide selection of Asian movies, including many niche and genre films.