By Paul Bramhall
While just like Shiri put Korean action movies on the map in 1999, a year prior the high school ghost tale Whispering Corridors did the same for the Korean horror movie. However both genres had been around for long before the titles that gained them international recognition, with horror in particular having been present in Korean cinema since the 1960’s. While sadly many of these early genre efforts are no longer around, a few did survive (with some of them even receiving English subtitled DVD releases, such as 1961’s A Devilish Homicide, and 1967’s A Public Cemetery of Wolha), although the availability of such titles by enlarge remains extremely limited.
One such example of the genre is 1981’s Suddenly in the Dark, the only horror movie to be helmed by prolific director Go Yeong-nam. Working within the Korean studio system of the era, from his debut in 1964 Yeong-nam would go on to direct over 160 movies up to his final feature, Picture Diary, in 2000. His remarkable span of work over such a long period makes it all the more surprising that Suddenly in the Dark was the one and only time he ventured into horror territory, with the bulk of his work consisting mainly of dramas. Notably however, he did direct a handful of 70’s Bobby Kim starring martial arts movies, including The Deadly Kick.
Suddenly in the Dark, on paper at least, owes a lot to Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic The Housemaid (which was itself remade in 2010 by Im Sang-soo). The plot focuses on a wife and husband in a well-to-do middle class house set in the countryside. The husband is a butterfly collector who lectures at university, and is frequently away for days at a time on trips to collect and photograph rare species, which he then shows off to his university associates upon his return. On one trip, he arrives home with a young girl in tow. He explains that he found her wandering around, and since both her parents are dead, he thought they could take her on as a housemaid. The wife, delighted to have a helping hand, happily agrees. However, soon a strange doll that the girl carries around, and the revelation that she’s the daughter of a shaman, have the wife questioning what her true intentions are, as she begins to believe more and more that her husband is being seduced.
The wife is played by Kim Young-ae, an actress who has been active in the industry since 1971. Sadly, Young-ae passed away in April 2017, however remained acting until her final days. More recently she can be seen in the likes of 2012’s Confession of Murder, and her final appearance on the big screen can be seen in 2016’s Operation Chromite. Her husband is played by Yoon Il-bong, an actor with over 180 movies to his name, in a career which spanned from the early 50’s and continued for over 40 years. Il-bong can be found in many of the classics of 60’s and 70’s Korean cinema, from 1961’s Aimless Bullet to the likes of Lee Jang-ho’s 1974 debut Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, and 1975’s The March of Fools. The maid herself is played by Lee Gi-seon, an actress who made just 4 movies, all between 1980 – 1982, and all of which appear to have her typecast as a sultry seductress.
Traditional Korean shamanism has never been fully taken advantage of as a practice to incorporate into the countries horror genre, which is a pity, since it’s so unique. Korean shaman’s are usually women, and are able to communicate with the Gods via dancing themselves into a trance like frenzy adorned in colourful garbs. In 2013 Park Chan-kyong (the brother of director Park Chan-wook) made an insightful documentary on one of the most famous Korean shamans, with Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits, which itself came about thanks to the pair making the 2011 short film Night Fishing together, which involved shamanistic practices. While more recently scenes with shamans can also be found in the likes of Possessed and The Priests, it was director Na Hong-jin who perhaps most effectively utilised shamanism for a modern audience, with 2016’s The Wailing.
In Suddenly in the Dark, the element of Gi-seon being a shamans daughter is played upon in a psychological way, which really plays to the benefit of the horror which begins to unfold, as Young-ae slowly begins to question her sanity. One of the biggest strengths of the plot is that it’s never implicitly stated whether or not Gi-seon is trying to seduce Il-bong, or if everything is a case of Young-ae becoming more and more paranoid. The fact that almost the whole movie plays out from the perspective of Young-ae keeps us on her side for the most part, so it’s only when her husband and friend begin to question her for further details, that we as the audience also question why we’re believing Gi-seon is out to break up their happy home.
Indeed the look and feel of Suddenly in the Dark is more reminiscent of Italian director Dario Agento’s work of the era than any Korean production, with even the pulsating synthesiser score recalling Goblin’s trademark soundtracks. Almost the entire movie is spent in and around Young-ae and Il-bong’s house, making it feel as much of a character as the trio that reside in it. Its garish red carpets and plethora of stuffed animals, which often prominently frame the foreground of many shots, add a sense of foreboding dread to many of the scenes. A variety of different shots are also used to portray Young-ae’s torment, from filming as a kaleidoscope of images, to lensing through what appears to be an empty glass bottle, the methods may be simple but they convey the desired effect of a disorientated frame of mind. Another noteworthy and unique touch that I enjoyed, is that many scenes fade out through the lighting of the scene being dimmed until it’s completely dark.
Despite film censorship still being prominent in Korea during the early 80’s (Park Chung-hee, who notoriously run the country as a dictator during his term in office, had only been assassinated in October of 1979), Suddenly in the Dark has a surprising amount of nudity. Upon Gi-seon’s arrival in the household, Young-ae bathes her and comments on what a perfect body she has, and as the plot moves forward, it almost seems as if Young-ae is more obsessed with Gi-seon’s sexuality than she believes her husband to be. In many ways Gi-seon represents everything that modern Korea was attempting to move on from at the time, with Park Chung-hee actively arresting and burning down the shrines of traditional shamans during the 70’s, labelling them as an embarrassing remnant of Korea’s past. Gi-seon’s presence in Young-ae and Il-bong’s western style home represents the ghosts of a past Korea wanted to move on from, but in fact never really went away.
Events eventually culminate in a finale that sees Young-ae alone in the house one night as a storm rages outside, and the madness that’s been threatening to take over on slow burn up until this point fully takes hold. Again the question is wisely never addressed of what’s real and what’s not, however regardless of the answer, it doesn’t take away any of the impact of what’s happening on screen. Young-ae struggles through the terror in a sequence which encompasses slow motion, more butterflies than you can shake a stick at, and the omnipresent wooden doll makes itself known as only a doll in a horror movie could. It would be a spoiler to go into any more details regarding the ending, but again, for those that familiarise themselves with Korean shamanism, the final shot has a lasting impact, and goes a long way to explaining all that’s come before.
I don’t usually mention specific releases during a review, purely because there can be that many, spread across countless different territories (just ask any Bruce Lee fan), that discussing any one version can quickly become a moot point. However for Suddenly in the Dark I’ll make an exception, which received a US Blu-ray release in February 2017 (after an initial numbered limited edition run of 500 in 2016) on the Mondo Macabro label. The release is significant, considering pre-1995 Korean cinema has been all but ignored when it comes to western releases (with the exception of the previously mentioned Housemaid, which was included in Vol. 1 of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project on the Criterion label), which is bafflingly inexplicable. While titles are more readily available on the Korean Film Archive domestic releases (all of which come with English subtitles), hopefully this will open the door for more titles to receive western releases.
The tale of Suddenly in the Dark differs depending on how you look at it – is it a psycho-sexual thriller? A tale of supernatural revenge? A metaphor for Korea’s rapid rise to modernisation and the cost it brought? I’d argue that it’s all of these, but first and foremost, it’s an effective slice of horror, and if you’ve spent the last 20 years binge watching long black haired ghosts, then you’re in for a breath of fresh air.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10