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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Black House Brings the Scares, K-Horror Style

"I never knew insurance could kill people."

So says Jun-oh, the main character of Black House, the newest South Korean horror film to gain an American DVD release. And neither did I, until I saw this movie. It's unfortunate that those without an understanding of a film's original language can never fully assess its dialogue. But clumsy translations aside, Black House--a.k.a. Geomeun Jip--is a well-made and enjoyable hybrid of psychological thriller and slasher flick.

For those who care about this sort of thing, this review will contain some big-time spoilers, but there's just no way for me to do the movie justice without them. That said, this is an intelligent horror movie that deals primarily with the issues of psychopaths living in our midst every day, and how they coexist--or fail to do so--with the rest of society.

The central conflict is between the antagonist Yi-Hwa, a cold-blooded killer who remorsely maims and slaughters her own husbands and children for insurance money, and the aforementioned Jun-oh, a protagonist so deeply empathetic that he cannot even bring himself to kill Yi-Hwa, even when directly threatened by her. This clash of a pure psychopath and the most humane of heroes is particularly interesting, especially in their final confrontation--a very clever take on the classic slasher movie ending in which the killer inflicts her final wound to the hero by destroying herself despite his efforts to prevent it.

The revelation of Yi-Hwa as the murderer is one of the film's major twists, as we are initially led to believe it is her obviously odd husband who is masterminding the insurance crimes. A female movie slasher is an extremely rare thing, and the beautiful Seon Yu plays Yi-Hwa in chillingly effective fashion. Jeong-min Hwang also acquits himself well as the hapless yet good-hearted insurance agent Jun-oh.

First-time director Terra Shin does a solid job of building tension during the picture's well-paced and suspense-driven first half. This only adds to the payoff later, when the movie takes a turn into Saw-like "torture porn" territory. (We even get a particularly hard-to-watch car-key-to-the-eye-socket shot. After Hostel and now this, I'm beginning to think that young one-eyed Asian women are becoming a new horror staple.) And as with most films of this type, it is all extremely well photographed.

But Black House is a bit more intelligent than its American counterparts. Not content to shock us with non-stop violence wrapped in the feeblest of social messages, the movie attempts to deal more deeply with some morality concerns. If psychopaths are afflicted with mental illness, does that absolve them of blame? Do they deserve pity, or does pitying them simply make us easier prey? Is murder ever justified? The movie ventures into the kind of moral territory most slashers never do.

The movie is based on a novel by Japanese writer Yusuke Kishi, which was previously adapted in Japan into the 1999 film Kuroi Ei. I haven't seen that, so I can't compare the two (anyone who has is welcome to.) I'm not sure, therefore, whether to blame some of the movie's hard-to-ignore plot holes on the book or the screenplay (wouldn't a red flag be raised if Yi-Hwa has a history of cashing in on the loss of her spouses?)

There's also a certain amount of predictability at work--the second you see how happy Jun-oh and his girlfriend are, you just know she's going to be put in some serious danger before the film is out. But I'm not one to quibble too much about predictability. Someone once said that all the great ideas are already taken, and it's true--there are no new plot devices. Rather, what matters is how the plot devices are executed, and in Black House they are, by and large, done quite well.

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