Director: Kim Sung-hong
Writer: Yeo Hye-yeong
Cast: Yoon So-jeong, Park Yong-woo, Choi Ji-woo, Mun Su-jin, Lee Seung-woo, Jeon Hong-ryeol, Koo Hey-ryoung, Youn Sung-hun, Tae Yu-rim, Kim Gye-pae, Seo Eun-sun
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Director Kim Sung-hong may not be a name that’s immediately familiar to many fans of Korean cinema, however he was behind one of the first wave of Korean movies to get distributed in the west, with 2001’s mean spirited horror thriller Say Yes. His movies since then have displayed a similar streak of nastiness, from 2009’s Missing to 2012’s Doctor, the one recurring theme is that of a vulnerable female being put in jeopardy by a variety of unpleasant characters – be it psychopathic killers or deranged surgeons.
In 1997 he directed his fourth feature, The Hole, which marked his second time working with the man behind the script of Say Yes, Yeo Hye-yeong. One element that really stands out in all of Sung-hong and Hye-yeong’s collaborations, is how jealousy always plays a very prominent role. The first time they worked together was on 1994’s Deep Scratch, which dealt with a pair of female friends, one of whom becomes increasingly jealous of the others reputation and status, leading to murderous results. Then in Say Yes, Park Joong-hoon’s psychotic killer was jealous of the couples happiness.
The Hole though is arguably the best and most interesting of the productions they worked on. Proceedings open with a well-dressed 50-something woman preparing breakfast for two in the dining area of a spacious house, located in a Seoul suburb. After perfectly setting out the dishes, she chirpily makes her way upstairs, and walks into a bedroom where we see a partially dressed younger man lying in bed asleep. She lightly kisses him on the cheek, waking him up, and the two engage in a playful wrestling match, pinning each other down and rolling around on top of each other, while playfully boasting of who is going to win this time. As the fumbling around comes to an end, he tells her he’ll be down for breakfast, and much to the shock of the viewer, references her as “Mother”.
It’s the type of opening that immediately grabs your attention, the sudden revelation of him casually revealing their relationship to be that of mother and son echoing the tone of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s over breakfast that the son reveals to his mother that he’s set up a dinner date for them later that evening, to the sound of which her face lights up with happiness, as he goes on to explain she should wear something extra nice. When she enquires as to why, he explains that he plans to introduce her future daughter-in-law, and her change in expression is one of the highlights of the movie. This opening exchange does a fantastic job at setting the scene, for what could best be described as a psychopathic horror version of Monster-in-Law.
The mother in question is played by Yoon So-jeong, an actress who amazingly, despite being in the industry since 1964, has only featured in a total of 21 productions (her most sparse period being between 1970 – 1990, during which there are only 3 credited movies to her name). The Hole marked the debut of Park Yong-woo, the actor who plays the son, who would go on to feature in the likes of Blood Rain and Battlefield Heroes. The main cast is rounded out by Choi Ji-woo, as the unsuspecting daughter-in-law. Ji-woo has been in a number of popular movies throughout the years, including parts in the likes of Nowhere to Hide and Shadowless Sword.
It’s a credit to The Hole that it wastes no time in getting down to business. In its compact 95 minute runtime, after the opening exchange over breakfast, the scene immediately cuts to Yong-woo and Ji-woo’s wedding, as So-jeong sits quietly at the back, coldly staring as her son ties the knot. From there we follow Ji-woo as she moves into Yong-woo’s residence with his mother. It’s worth noting that in Korea it used to be tradition that the bride moves in with the husbands family, an element of Korean life that, while still there, is certainly no longer considered the norm that it once was. The fact that such a scenario is still reflected in a movie as recent as 1997, is indicative of just how much both Korean cinema and society have changed since the beginning of the movement that became popularly known as the Korean Wave.
Once in, the remaining 80 minutes can be summarised as So-jeong attempting to force Ji-woo out of the house through a series of increasingly violent encounters, while playing innocent and charming whenever Yong-woo arrives home from work each evening. It’s a simple premise, almost exploitative in its nature, however Sung-hong shows a level of restraint here that’s sadly lacking in his later productions, and the result is an entertainingly straightforward psycho thriller. Much of the fun in watching The Hole comes from witnessing whatever So-jeong attempts next, be it psychotically chopping up a board of vegetables with a razor sharp kitchen knife in front of Ji-woo, or the more extreme method of attempting to drown her face first in a bathtub.
The structure of the plot unfurls in such a way that at times it recalls Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaption of Misery, as much as it does the earlier mentioned Psycho. There’s a real feeling of Ji-woo being trapped inside the house, and her initial enthusiasm to please her mother-in-law, to that of fearing for her life, is a convincing one. Indeed more so than Yong-woo, who for the longest time remains blind to what’s going on, The Hole is a surprisingly female centric story considering the usual way in which female characters are treated in Sung-hong’s movies. Both the predator and the prey are women, and when it comes to the crunch, it’s not a man that comes to rescue the damsel in distress, but Ji-woo’s female co-worker.
If there’s one criticism that viewers may level at The Hole, it’s that how the relationship between So-jeong and Yong-woo came to be is never explored. Apart from being a mother who clearly loves her a son a little too much for comfort, and Yong-woo having never known any different, there are no other details revealed. How did she come to be alone? Why does she feel the way she does about Yong-woo? It potentially could have further added additional layers of complexity to the story, and made for a more unsettling experience, but Hye-yeong’s script steers clear of giving any background context to the situation. That’s not to say that their relationship doesn’t provide any worthy moments, as in one of the more uncomfortable scenes, Ji-woo walks past the bathroom door and hears them both talking together. As she quietly opens the door, she’s greeted by the sight of the mother soaping down her sons naked body, much to her absolute horror.
Events gradually intensify and build to a satisfyingly tense and worthwhile finale, one which manages to surprise without resorting to cheap twists or other shock tactics. In many ways The Hole feels like it could be a 90’s Korean version of a Hitchcock thriller, if ever such a comparison could be made. The constant underlying tension and threat of violence never feels far away, and when it does arrive it manages to treads the line so that it never feels like we’re watching violence for violence’s sake, something which Sung-hong would become increasingly guilty of after The Hole.
The Hole is one of those many productions that was released just before Korea’s movies became widely distributed on an international scale, and like so many of the countries pre-1999 output, as a result it remains a relatively unknown title outside of Korean shores. It’s a shame, as it stands as the highpoint of director Sung-hong’s filmography, balancing elements of being both a thriller and a psychological horror perfectly, thanks in no small part due to the pitch perfect performances from So-jeong and Ji-woo. Needless to say, if you have a chance to see The Hole, don’t pass it up.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10