Exhuma : Movie Review

Posted by Eddie Pasa on March 14, 2024 in / No Comments

 

Not Rated by the MPA (contains horror movie violence, gore, and some language – equivalent to R). In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Released by Well Go USA Entertainment and Showbox.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Well Go USA Entertainment, Showbox, Exhuma, PamyoThe Korean ghost story Exhuma gets your spine tingling in all the right places. Writer/director Jang Jae-hyun creates a world in which spirits work through the unwitting and are fought by rituals, lowly funeral directors, and globe-trotting specialists. It’s portrayed as just an everyday action, like going to a strip mall to fix your vacuum cleaner and get a pedicure. That’s how lived-in and normal Jang wishes us to consider his band of unlikely heroes, a mix of young and seasoned consultants working to lift a curse from a newborn baby.

Of course, as is wont to happen, it isn’t as easy as digging up a grave and putting a malevolent soul to rest, and even that comes with unexpected baggage and surprises. Jang also reaches into the tumultuous relations between Korea and Japan, making a case for reopening old wounds to begin healing. To someone unfamiliar with this, Exhuma works as a straight-ahead supernatural film, but its roots in historical conflict deepen the mystery and metaphoric substance Jang wishes to impart.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Well Go USA Entertainment, Showbox, Exhuma, PamyoAs William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Exhuma deals with ghosts whose presence has an ill effect on the living. In one case, geomancer Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and undertaker Young-geun (Yoo Hae-jin) discover why a deceased and buried grandmother has been haunting her family. After looking at the remains, Sang-deok proclaims that “Grandma is hungry” because she cannot eat in the afterlife without her false teeth. This scene serves two purposes: to establish both the business of dealing with spirits and the good nature of these two partners. Also, for being a scene consisting of exhumation and finding out why Grandma’s teeth are missing, there’s some broad humor that gives us pause as to what kind of movie we might be watching.

It’s Sang-deok and Young-geun’s good nature we hold onto as we descend into the linchpin case of the film. Stylish and young shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and her apprentice Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) have been summoned by a Los Angeles family to get rid of their ancestor’s spirit causing their client to see visions of a man screaming and their newborn to cry constantly. Feeling that there’s more to it than just simple exorcism, Hwa-rim consults with Sang-deok and Young-geun about possibly relocating said ancestor’s grave, which is met with stunning reluctance when Sang-deok sees the burial site.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Well Go USA Entertainment, Showbox, Exhuma, PamyoOminous and secluded, the gravesite sits atop a mountain with a view of Japan from its zenith. Right away, Sang-deok claims that everything is wrong about this and they should not proceed, but in the interest of saving the baby, the coffin is exhumed with a strict order not to open it… which, of course, gets flouted and results in horrifying consequences. Worse yet, a terrifying omen speaks of something still undiscovered in the grave site that drives that second half of the film and powers it all the way to its larger-than-life climax.

It’s a fascinating look at the resounding effects of generational trauma and larger-scale conflict clothed in the cinematic supernatural. Jang walks us through the responsibilities of the shamans and the geomancers, familiarizing us with what’s expected of them and their standing in society. But it’s the team of actors themselves who truly bring us into this world and immerse us in the details of their characters’ protection rites and precautions. Better yet, they create an easy rapport that makes them a magnetic and effective team that’s worth rooting for and actually liking.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Well Go USA Entertainment, Showbox, Exhuma, PamyoHwa-rim’s optimism for her client and for the team itself is countered by Sang-deok’s tempered and experienced manner, but not in any domineering or insulting way; they’re coming at a problem from two different positions and working brilliantly together to solve them. Kim Go-eun gives Hwa-rim the freshness of youth with a practiced knowledge of her craft, resulting in a delightfully enigmatic performance. She comes across as both anchored and free-flying, but never ignorant or weak; even in the face of the greatest danger she’s ever stared in the eye, she maintains a professional demeanor, bending herself to the situation but never breaking.

As the voice of hard-earned wisdom, Choi Min-sik carries a gruff yet fatherly countenance toward everyone. Sang-deok is the kind of character who knows when he’s got the upper hand or to step back when he’s out of his depth, and Choi expertly turns between his emotions with fluid grace, countering Kim’s stalwart Hwa-rim. Yoo Hae-jin and Lee Do-hyun follow suit with solid takes on their supporting characters, never overbearing or crossing into parody; their characters are deadly serious about their work, and Yoo and Lee’s performances are spot-on, delivering whenever they’re called upon.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Well Go USA Entertainment, Showbox, Exhuma, PamyoExhuma features horror film imagery, but it’s not meant to shock or titillate; instead, it’s treated as part of the job these four have to do. Jang treats spirits as fellow travelers walking the earth for their own purposes, not as “Boo!”-type jump scare generators. He works more with dread and genuine fright than having to be obvious about horror movie scares; atmosphere and feeling are more important than thrills, a choice which makes this film stand out from the rest. While there are a few terrifying moments – a panicked phone call, an apparition outside a window, a human head where there shouldn’t be, a full-on Exorcist neck twist, among others – they’re filled with more purpose than simple frights.

The Japanese annexation and occupation of Korea in the early 20th century and the resulting animosity between the two nations are contextualized in horror movie trappings. However, while Jang Jae-hyun portrays a Japanese spirit as vengeful and spiteful, he still layers in the hope of healing festering wounds figuratively and literally. His spirits in Exhuma haunt the living for wrongs done to them; the team Jang has put together is not one of extermination, but of putting things right, and the optimism found in Hwa-rim balances out the horrors they face bravely. It’s heart-pounding when it needs to be and solidly humanistic the rest of the way; in that, Exhuma defies expectations and rises above the horror genre by being full of heart, purpose… and some solid scares to fit the bill.

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Eddie Pasa

Eddie is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). Since starting in 2010 at The Rogers Revue, Eddie has written for Reel Film News (now defunct), co-founded DC Filmdom, and writes occasionally for Gunaxin. When not reviewing movies, he's spending time with his wife and children, repeat-viewing favorites on 4k or Blu-Ray, working for rebranding agency Mekanic, or playing acoustic shows and DJing across the DC/MD/VA area. Special thanks go to Jenn Carlson, Moira and Ari Pasa, Viki Nova at City Dock Digital in Annapolis, Mike Parsons, Philip Van Der Vossen, and Dean Rogers.

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