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Exhuma Eerily Engages the Past

Kim Go-eun in Exhuma. Images courtesy of MCMC and IMDb Pro.

Exhuma turns the past into a meat hook. Smartly restrained gore allows an eerie atmosphere to dominate. Although “scary” is a relative term, for those in search of a mild fright flick, this Korean supernatural thriller will do the trick. There’s an authenticity throughout this tale of vengeful ghosts coupled with a compelling mystery that’ll keep audiences engaged throughout its slow burn. Furthermore, Exhuma is an admirable example of folk horror.

The story begins with Hwa-rim and her associate Bong-gil, a pair of Mu (shaman) called in by a wealthy Korean family. The two diagnose that a disquieted ancestor is the cause of troubles and recommend relocating the deceased. To do so properly, Hwa-rim enlists the help of Kim Sang-deok, a feng shui master, and Yeong-geun, an undertaker. They’ve worked together before, and this seems like easy money until they arrive at the gravesite. Things steadily spiral out of control as dark secrets are unearthed. Supernatural forces soon torment the living, and it’ll take everything they have, perhaps even their lives, to end the curse they’ve uncovered.

The thematic aspects of Exhuma are wonderful even if metaphors are sometimes a bit on the nose. Its central premise involves literally digging up the past as well as the consequences of doing so. This primarily relates to decades of Japanese imperialism that brutalized and exploited the Korean population. However, the film isn’t solely about the suffering of a wounded nation, rather the ability of people to find purpose.

Three people stand and observe in a forest in Exhuma.
Yoo Hae-jin, Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun in Exhuma. Image courtesy of MCMC and IMDb Pro.

Hwa-rim and Sang-deok truly believe in their spiritualist solutions to problems as do their associates. Yet, they act like a group of grifters more than holistic healers. Essentially, they’ve accepted how a skeptical society views them and carry on in that regard. Hwa-rim in particular conducts herself with a cynical sincerity that’s intriguing, a quality conveyed by the excellent performance of Kim Go-eun (A Muse).

Counterbalancing her disenchanted mood is Sang-deok played by Choi Min-sink (Oldboy). He’s reminiscent of that typical last-of-my-kind individual. The world is increasingly uninterested in what he has to offer, making him a living embodiment of anyone growing old. He’s seen the best days of his relevance fade into the past; Choi Min-sink skillfully suggests the weight of years and the burden of owning often ignored wisdom with a mix of expression and vocal tone.

Bong-gil played by Lee Do-hyun (The Glory) alongside undertaker Yeong-geun portrayed by Yoo Hae-jin (A Taxi Driver) help accentuate the authentic vibe of Exhuma. The characters always feel like they believe in what’s happening. This isn’t a supernatural story about skeptics. Instead, it’s about true believers finding themselves in over their heads, and the whole cast comes together selling the reality of the film.

A man examines the inside of a large hole dug in a meadow in Exhuma.
Choi Min-sik in Exhuma. Image courtesy of MCMC and IMDb Pro.

Completing that authenticity are the efforts by writer-director Jang Jae-hyun to capture genuine displays of Korean shamanism. These gut (rites) have a frenzied quality that is captivating to behold. Knowing what transpires on screen is based on something real adds weight to the tension building during certain scenes, but even if it were all fiction, the passion in performances as well as quality camera work capture the right mood.

Exhuma is a methodically burning fuse wire. It sizzles through several scenes dripping with atmospheric tension before the blast. Depending on an individual’s scare threshold — the spooks they can tolerate — Exhuma is somewhere between firecrackers and an M-80. The idea of these evil entities is often more frightening than their presentation. There is something alarming about them regardless of one’s tolerance for nightmare fuel. This could easily be one of those movies that doesn’t haunt a viewer until they’re trying to go to sleep. That’s why creepy is perhaps the best way to describe events overall.

There isn’t a tremendous amount of gore, but the right amount of blood is better than uselessly spilled buckets. Exhuma never uses splatter as a crutch. Instead, it sticks to its overall tone, sometimes to its detriment. Even if a viewer finds the horror mild, the mystery of what’s going on will hook an audience. Fortunately, the exact nature of the curse afflicting all involved unfolds over the course of the whole film.

A woman looks across a natural-walled room.
Kim Go-eun in Exhuma. Image courtesy of MCMC and IMDb Pro.

During that time audiences will get to experience all manner of disquieting folk horror. There are sinister foxes, human-headed snakes, and eerie shooting locations. Director Jang Jae-hyun captures some splendid shots that are an intriguing mix of picturesque and bizarre. Mountain forests seem like the last place anyone should wander, while buildings give off a strong sense of danger. Exhuma is packed with an ethereal dread enhanced by an excellent soundscape.

Comparing this to other films risks tangling it in notions the movies don’t necessarily share. Suffice it to say, Exhuma is two ghost stories packed into one. There are literal wraiths and the specter of the past. Yet, the metaphor never overwhelms the horror at the heart of the story. Stellar performances alongside authentic displays of Korean shamanism give a reality to the movie similar supernatural thrillers lack. It would be nice if Exhuma occasionally picked up the pace, but the mystery it unravels is worth the wait the first time through.

This sinister folk horror builds on an intriguing premise, where the cultural and political history behind what unfolds adds an disconcerting realism to certain elements. Those who prefer horror light on gore will be happy with this movie. Plus, Exhuma is ideal for someone dipping a toe into fright flicks — take that first step towards the thrilling realm of Asian scares. More than anything else, it’s creepy. Given how some scary movies try to shock nowadays, Exhuma shows a smart restraint that’s still unsettling.

Now available on Shudder.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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