The Korean Horror That Took South Korea by Storm

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Art of Lily K
| May 23, 2024
hello world!

At the beginning of this year, I published an article about the Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies. Exhuma – The Unearthed Grave took the Number 8 spot. 

Even though I’ve been immersed in Korean Cinema and TV for a long time now, I keep discovering new things with every new entry: things about Korean Culture, beliefs, and dynamics. It is incredibly fascinating and eye-opening. In the center of Exhuma are shamanism, feng shui, and geomancy. I know a bit about feng shui, probably the general stuff that everyone has heard about before, but I only had glimpses into who Shamans are in Korean culture. Before this movie, I had never even heard about geomancers, so I can safely say that I learned a lot of new things. But… what is Exhuma about exactly? Let me tell you about it. 

I will leave a tiny Spoiler Warning here. I’ll try my best not to spoil any of the big things from the story, but small spoilers can still occur. You’ve been warned. 

Lee Do-hyun and Kim Go-eun

When a renowned shaman, Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun), and her protégé, Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun), are hired by a wealthy, enigmatic family, they begin investigating the cause of a disturbing supernatural illness that affects only the first-born children of each generation. With the help of a knowledgeable mortician, Young-geun (Yoo Hae-jin), and the country’s most revered geomancer, Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik), they soon trace the affliction’s origin to a long-hidden family grave located on sacred ground. Although Sang-deok strongly suggests not touching the grave and first refuses to help the family, Hwa-rim convinces him to do it. And as you can all guess – they should have listened to Sang-deok.  

First and foremost, it is fascinating to see and learn about how much Korean people believe in all this and how important it is for them to have proper burial grounds for their loved ones. In South Korea, every year, about 250,000 people die, and only 30% are buried while 70% are cremated. Geomancers help with the knowledge of feng shui to find good places for graves, something that is mostly affordable for rich people, mind you. They even say in the movie that since the Joseon Dynasty, every place considered good has people buried there already. Probably the reason why many people choose to cremate their loved ones. But even cremation has rules to it. The whole first conflict of the movie comes from the moment they move the coffin and it starts raining. They can’t cremate someone while it’s raining because that will send their soul to a bad place. So they have to wait, and trouble finds them… 

It wasn’t just the fact that amazing actors like Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) or Lee Do-hyun (Sweet Home, The Good Bad Mother) were in the lead roles that caught my attention. I was also very much intrigued by the premise of the story mostly because no matter how much I already consumed from Korean movies, shamans – especially –  are still in the grey area for me. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the whole thing as I always find it hard to connect to stories dealing with people’s superstitions and beliefs. But this movie not only managed to pull me with its first ten minutes but made me even more curious by the end. That is not easy to achieve in any case. 

Above the grave (You Hae-jin and Choi Min-sik)

I like to get the negative out of the way first whenever it comes to any kind of review. The thing with Exhuma is… I don’t have much negative to say. The story in itself is incredibly gripping and interesting. I loved how it was divided into six chapters, giving a better focus to each part. The characters were very strongly written and had their moments to truly shine. I will say – as a bit of a critique – that I really hoped to see more from Lee Do-Hyun and was ready to be disappointed, but the last 20-30 minutes gave space for him to shine, and he honestly did wonderfully. Even more minor characters were so well-crafted and put in the story that there’s not much else to desire here. 

Maybe, if I am nit-picking the whole thing, I would have liked to see a bit more of both Hwa-rim and Sang-deok’s backstory. Especially in Hwa-rim’s case (minor spoiler), her connection to her late grandmother is brought up three different times, and in two cases, the grandmother even saves her life. It is implied that she was also a shaman like everyone in the family, but it’s never truly clear why they share this strong bond with Hwa-rim and not the other two sisters. But it is – again – just nit-picking from my side. My other tiny nit-pick comes from my disgust with the topic… I wish that I didn’t have to see three different people throw up in this movie; yes, it has a lot to do with the topic, but… this is why I don’t watch movies about exorcisms. It’s disgusting. Anyway…

Moving on. 

Preparation for the ritual

Who should watch this movie?

Well… if you are easily scared it is not for you. I say easily scared because scares are not what this film builds on. It is the suspense of everything, waiting to see what will be the consequences of each action. It is a good old-fashioned slow-burner that I’m well aware isn’t for everyone out there. 

However, when the action hits, it is an experience you will not forget. The editing in the scenes where they cut between two or three storylines is simply the best I’ve seen in a while. It masterfully builds the tension and comes down in a satisfying crescendo of events. 

I loved Exhuma a lot. It gave enough space for its characters to navigate things and for us to connect with them. It explores parts of the culture that are not often showcased. Acting, storytelling, and directing are all masterclasses. I love it when actors get lost in their roles so much that they become one with their characters, and that is exactly what happens here. Exhuma was worth the wait, and if you have a chance to see it, do it. You won’t regret it. 

9/10 Soups! Delicious.

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