With the success of Whispering Corridors (Ki-Hyung Park, 1998) and its sequel Memento Mori (Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min, 1999), South Korean horror cinema has become a hot commodity all over the world. Not to be confused with other Asian horror, the SK version subscribes to distinctive plot and visual conventions. In particular, most of these narratives are structured as studies of fate and coincidence, showcasing Freudian subtexts.
Though Sorum (literal translation from Korean: Goose Bumps) closely follows these conventions, it also defies categorization. It might be best described as a ghost story, but without ghosts. Instead of using gore and special effects to horrify, Sorum relies on characterization, plot development, and grim images of destitution. Its resistance to genre might account for Sorum‘s uneven release history. Though it won the 2002 Best Director, Best Actress, and Special Jury Prize awards at Fantasporto (the prominent fantastic film festival held in Porto, Portugal), it never opened in European and U.S. theaters. And while we might be grateful for its existence, Tartan Video’s DVD, quite unfortunately, has no meaningful bonus features, only a making-of documentary that consists of seemingly random behind-the-scenes clips.
Sorum‘s subtexts are based in Seoul’s history of poverty and class segregation. After the devastating Kwangju massacre in May 1980, that left hundreds of demonstrators dead, General Chun Doo-Kwan seized control of the country. The resulting political oppression produced a socially conscious underground film movement that addressed the violence, economic decline, and administrative corruption that consumed the country for over seven years. This artistic counterculture continues to stimulate, inspire, and educate today’s filmmakers.
Such influence is evident in Sorum‘s first scene, where young taxi driver Yong-Hyun (Kim Myung-Min), struggling to make ends meet, moves into a decrepit building in a rundown section of Seoul. Most of the walls are adorned with graffiti, the corridors strewn with trash, and the pervasive sound of dripping water hints at a plumbing nightmare. The ceiling of Yong-Hyun’s apartment shows signs of smoke damage, a reminder of the building’s terrible past.
This ominous locale stands in contrast to the nearby 7-11, brightly illuminated and spotless. While the old building symbolizes a declining traditional Korean culture, the 7-11 denotes the unstoppable Americanization of the region. The eerie apartment building appears almost to be a conscious entity. The lights in the corridors turn on and off, suggesting heavy breathing, while the windows form a strange pattern that resembles an enraged face. More disturbing, the inhabitants become “ghosts” as well, as Yong-Hyun and his neighbors are alienated and made nearly invisible by their menial jobs.
Their present is infected by the past, specifically, murder in Yong-Hyun’s apartment. He is an unknowing catalyst for more horrors, when he befriends his neighbor Sun-Yeong (Jang Jin-Young), a battered wife who recently lost her son. When Sun-Yeong’s jealous husband finds them talking to each other, he goes into a rage. She kills her husband and asks Yong-Hyun to help her dispose of the body, leading to a creepy romantic relationship. As Yong-Hyun and Sun-Yeong reenact the violent events of 30 years before, the film suggests that from the start, they were trapped in a complex web of fate and coincidence.
Structured as a ghost story, Sorum never displays phantoms or spirits, and all events might be attributed to everyday causes or human selfishness. Sorum does not try to simplify the deep socio-economical problems that trouble low income South Koreans, by blaming supernatural forces for their condition.
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