Dir. Jung Brothers. Korea, 2007. 98 mins
The performance of Epitaph in Korean cinemas in August was relatively disappointing with just 600,000 admissions but much of the blame was put on the release date. However, the film itself must have something to do with it: this mystifying, often confused first film looks much better than it ultimately is. Too many ideas and notions are squeezed in, with not enough of an effort is made to tie them up together in a coherent manner.
The stunning visuals blending with a rich, intricately-fashioned soundtrack, will thrill horror film aficionados but such films are supposed to say a bit more beyond scaring the wits out of their audience.
Festivals looking for outlandish fare, will certainly find a place for the film and in all fairness the work of the two brothers is intriguing enough to justify close observation in the future.
Epitaph throws together three hospital stories, all of them connected with guilt, fascination with the dead, and multiple personality.
The plot starts in 1979, when an respectable lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, Jung-Nam, is sent and album of old photographs which takes him and the audience back to 1942 and a Korean hospital during the Japanese occupation.
A group of young interns are working there day and night, one of them being young Jung-nam (Jin Goo) himself, at the time still a terribly clumsy and insecure new doctor, whose incompetence is penalised by a couple of weeks in the morgue.
Terrified by the dead around him, he nevertheless is fascinated by the pure, incredible beauty of a young girl who has committed suicide and whose body has been fished out of a frozen river.
A strange, one-sided relationship is established, sucking him into a mysterious experience, partly of his own imagination, with the ghost of the departed.
At the same time, the peace of the hospital is disturbed by the blood-curling screams of a young Japanese girl, Asako, the only survivor of the car accident that killed her mother and her new step-father but left her unscathed.
Tormented by guilt and of course the ghost of her mother, she is tortured by visions she cannot control, despite all the dedicated efforts of a senior doctor, Soo-in (Lee Dong-kyu).
Finally, unlike the squeamish Jang-nam who shudders at the sight of cadavers, there is a young, fearless female doctor, In-young (Kim Bo-kyung) who takes charge of the autopsies.
Her husband, Dong-won (Kim Tae-woo), also a doctor working in the same hospital, is shocked to discover that his wife has no shadow.
This tale touches on themes such as love beyond death and schizophrenia, but will put plenty of shivers down the audience's spine.
Korean cinema has always been fond of dealing with the supernatural and the horror genre right now is experiencing a renaissance.
The Jung brothers use every special effect in the book and draw on symbols such as murderous iron butterflies, spirits of the dead covered in blood or slime or, for some reason, snails.
The sound is often blood-curling, and one can easily sympathise with Jang-nam's terror in the morgue or the Japanese girl's agony as the fatal accident keeps replaying in her mind.
But, possibly because it is a first film, there is a lot of self-indulgence in piling up more and more effects and complicating the tales beyond the necessary, to the point where the Jungs risk losing both the interest of the audience and the thread of the stories.
Splendidly shot by Youn Nam-joo and recorded by Lee Sand-wook, with Lee Ming-bok and Chae Kyung-hwa to be commended respectively for the sets and costumes, Jung's cast plays up to expectations, though their parts are ultimately less important than the way they are integrated in the general picture.
As for the music of Park Yon-nan, after exploring the available options in Bernhard Hermann's scores, he settles for a pretty transparent tribute to Shostakovich's Jazz Suite, the same piece that Kubrick used in Eyes Wide Shut.
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