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Ulises [Celluloid 12.18.08] movie review horror

Year: 2007
DVD Release date: February 24th 2009 (R1 DVD)
Director: Jeong Beom-sik & Jeong Sik
Writers: Bum-Sik Jung & Sik Jung
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Amazon: N/"A
Review by: Ulises
Rating: 8 out of 10

The Bottom Line: A beautifully shot and choreographed Korean horror flick that certainly elevates the genre but also stays predictably true to it.

The Jung Brothers’ Epitaph has, apparently, drawn rave reviews from critics worldwide. And when you look at this film from a purely cinematographic point of view, it’s not hard to see why. This is a movie that does away with the murky shots, the B+ movie production values, and the occasionally campy aspects of not just Asian horror, but horror in general. When you think about it, horror isn’t exactly the most respected cinematic genre, all too often relegated to the fringes of mainstream tastes, embraced by folks like us who think there’s nothing wrong with blood, guts, gore, and the occasional chain rattling.

Epitaph is what a horror movie would look like if horror films were regular participants at the Academy Awards. Because the Jung Brothers have crafted a three-part, interwoven ghost story that presents some of the most beautiful cinematography and surreal expressionism to ever grace the genre. It elevates Asian horror to a new level of respectability, separating itself from the usual Red Shoes, Ghost, Ju-On, and Ringu fare by treating its subject matter with a poetic visual aesthetic and melancholic sensibility.

Unfortunately, it never really breaks free from the very horror conventions it’s separating itself from. And although its three separate stories are compelling in their own right, as an interwoven narrative, they confound and confuse, and they rob us of any chance of caring too much about any one character.

Epitaph is, essentially, a flashback to Korea in 1942 under Japanese occupation. As an elderly college professor learns that Anseng Hospital is about to be demolished, he flashes back to the time in his life where, he says, his life ended for all intents and purposes. Thus, we are taken back to his life as a young intern in Anseng. And thus, we are introduced to story one.

The first story involves Dr. Jung Nam, a wet-behind-the-ears intern who’s got a little problem. Not only is he assigned morgue duty for a week, but it turns out he’s been forced into an arranged marriage. With, of all people, the hospital director’s daughter. Like all youngsters being told they’re going to marry a person they only met once when they were kids, Jung Nam isn’t exactly jumping at the prospect. But when a suicide victim is brought in—a lovely young woman, an angel, as one of his colleagues describes her—something stirs in Jung Nam’s numbed mind. Fascination, for one. He admires the dead girl’s wedding band. He admires her beauty, and the fact that her corpse isn’t aging. He draws a portrait of her. And he visits her each night. So in other words, he starts acting like any well-adjusted, non-necrophiliac wouldn’t.

How will this story end? Let’s just say, the arranged marriage is going to happen one way or another.

Story two involves a small girl named Asako, who’s been in a terrible car accident and brought into the hospital, blood-soaked, screaming, yet miraculously unhurt. Unfortunately, the car accident killed her mother and Japanese stepfather. But when Asako starts having grisly visions of her dead mother every night, another doctor, Soo In, becomes her guardian angel. As an empathetic survivor of his own childhood trauma, Soo In tries to discover the root of Asako’s horrific visions, and her crippling sense of guilt. She insists the accident, and the death of her parents, was her fault. How could it be, though? She’s just this sweet, adorable girl.

How will this story end? Well, let’s just say, Dr. Soo In probably wants to rethink his whole “I’m going to be a loving father figure to this poor girl because she obviously loved her mom and dad, especially her dad” approach.

Story three involves a serial killer who begins by butchering a Japanese soldier, then kills a young Korean soldier, then kills a nurse. The local Japanese Army commander wants answers from the doctors at Anseng working the autopsies, a married couple, Dr. In Young Kim and Dr. Dong Won Kim. But it’s not long before Dong Won suspects his wife, In Young, is the serial killer. You see, there’s something kind of odd about her: she doesn’t cast a shadow. And when he stumbles upon the horrific truth of things, it becomes a race against time to stop the next killing. Or so it seems.

How will this story end? Well, let’s just say, you know what they say about the main thematic differences between Korean horror and Japanese horror? Yeah, that.

So how do these three stories relate? Aside from the fact that they all happen at Anseng, and that Jung Nam is witness to all of them, and that their respective events casually intersect with the events of the other two stories, not much. And therein lies one of the problems with Epitaph. On the one hand, its non-chronological narrative presents its usual vertigo of confusion so endemic to Asian horror. Starting off in 1979, the film then goes back to 1942, but then each story takes place one day before the previous, and so it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening when and how it’s relating to the current story.

The confusing chronological sequence isn’t the only aspect of Asian horror Epitaph recycles. In an unfortunate way, films like Epitaph are victims of the genre’s success. Because while the long-haired female specters popping out from dark, creepy corners were creepy as hell the first few times, now, they’ve become formulaic and standard. And if you’ve seen Korean horror films such as A Tale of Two Sisters and Red Shoes, or if you’ve read David Kalat’s book, “J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond,” then one of Epitaph’s big twists isn’t just predictable, but a bit corny once it tries to take it to another level. So while Epitaph’s few scares are decent, you’ve probably seen them both before.

Still, Epitaph isn’t your typical “let’s make you crap your pants with fear” Asian horror flick. It’s a ghost story that explores the bonds we keep between ourselves, and the forces of fate that determine how those bonds will be maintained. It’s a tragic exploration of love and guilt, loss and companionship, and of the supernatural forces that sometimes play a hand in them. So the scares are secondary anyway; the film’s real emotional drive is its narrative of loss, and it relies on its somber, poetic cinematography to make that narrative felt.

Whether it’s a dissonant contrast of red rose petals against a pale white snowfall, or an open book dream sequence where we follow the characters from different perspectives, or a surreal portrayal of In Young and Dong Won’s eternal-honeymoon domestic life, Epitaph infuses each scene with real emotion and melancholic beauty. With a color palate more reminiscent of epic set pieces, and a directorial style more American Beauty than American Gothic, Epitaph doesn’t even look like a horror movie. And maybe it’s not trying to be. For example, Asako’s story is probably the scariest, yet it’s also the most touching. The film tries to horrify us when it reveals the truth about Asako’s actions, but it tries to tug at our heart’s strings with its final, bittersweet resolution between mother and daughter. Horror films aren’t supposed to scare you one moment, then make you want to cry the next.

But there, again, lies a problem, and maybe it was the biggest problem I had with the movie. Even if I could agree that, with another viewing or two, the confusing chronology and intersecting storylines would make sense, I think the three stories spread our emotions pretty thin. And by that, I mean that it’s really hard to get emotionally invested in any of the main characters, because we simply don’t get to see them long enough. With each of the stories taking up an almost equal amount of screen time, each character—Jung Nam, Asako, Soo In, and In Young and and Dong Won—has precious little time to win our sympathies. Even little Asako can’t fully win us over, because we learn so little about her, and it’s hard to really feel as emotionally invested in her as the story is.

The ending, too, as gripping as it seems it could be, suffers from the film’s attempts to do too much in too little time. Sure, it’s poetic and bittersweet, and sure, it’s emotionally jarring to envision the possibilities it suggests—that the emotional connections between us really do traverse time, space, and even death. But do we care enough about the characters to empathize with their respective losses? I don’t think so.

With its brilliant cinematography and direction, Epitaph certainly elevates Asian horror to a new level of respectability. But in some ways, it can’t escape the conventions of Asian horror it tried to elevate in the first place. And with a confusing three-way narrative that sacrificed character development for scope, even its cinematography can’t hold the film afloat alone. Still, Epitaph is a beautiful film to watch, and an even more beautiful film to contemplate, and certainly recommended for anyone who enjoys Asian horror.

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