The Priests (Geomeun sajedeul)
Korea (2015) Dir. Jang Jae-Hyun
Typical – we go a lifetime without any films from Korea dealing with the subject of exorcism then we get two at once! Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing tormented us into sleepless nights but his gnarly epic was preceded by this debut outing from Jang Jae-Hyun, an extended version of his award winning short film 12th Assistant Deacon.
A high school girl Young-Sin (Park So-Dam) is in a coma after being knocked down by a car carrying two Italian priests as they rush from the scene of an exorcism. Korean Catholic priest Father Kim (Kim Yun-Seok) visits Young-Sin but believes she has been possessed by a demon and tries to perform an exorcism.
Because the ordeal is too much for some priests, and Father Kim is too difficult to work with for others, cocky student Deacon Choi (Gang Dong-Won) is chosen to be Kim’s next assistant for the exorcism, whilst also tasked with keeping an eye on Kim, following allegations that the priest had acted inappropriately with Young-Sin.
Quite what took Korea so long to explore exorcism as a theme for cinema might be down to Asia preferring their own take on religion over western interpretations of it, not that Christianity or Catholicism haven’t cropped up before in Asian films, just not within the dark and sinister context as submitted here.
Jang Jae-Hyun seems to have researched his material well enough not to offend Catholics, although the portrayal of Father Kim as a boozing, smoking, hot-tempered maverick instead of a pious man of integrity and temperance is straight out of the Father Ted playbook of seeking comic capital from the clergy. In fact, there are many moments where this film borders on the comedic that it is difficult to tell if it is a satire or not.
For instance, most of the Korean priests featured are fairly rough around the edges while Deacon Choi is prone to cheating in his exams, reading manga during sermons and sneaking out at of the church college grounds at night to buy beer. And to top it all, Father Kim has a piglet he keeps in the rectory grounds which he summons Choi to retrieve for him, then scolds him to bringing it into his sister’s pork restaurant!
Even with the central theme of exorcism, it is important to note that this isn’t a horror film despite some unpleasant moments in the third act, and it doesn’t quite live up to the possibility of being a psychological thriller either, at least not in the truest sense. This is down to the script being concerned with building things up but failing to deliver a satisfying pay off for most of them.
The first hour or so takes its time to introduce the characters and do a little bit of world building, but bizarrely prefers to rush through some of the more salient points – e.g. Kim’s supposed mistreatment of Young-Sin which is barely mentioned again – rather than make them more of a focal point to get the audience emotionally invested in the two priests and their individual missions.
It seems that such an accusation hanging over Kim’s head should have weighed more heavily on Choi’s mind, although to be fair what he later witnesses is quite a distraction, but he instead watches Kim with a cynical eye largely due to his caustic tongue and brusque manner.
Choi is also not without baggage, haunted by a fear of dogs ever since his younger sister was mauled by one when they were both children. An easy device for manipulating the audience, this again isn’t handled as a major obstacle for Kim to help Choi with and strengthen their relationship in the process. It comes, it’s dealt with, it goes, much like the other subplots introduced.
Thankfully the exorcism scene goes a long way to redeeming the flaws in the script, a powerful twenty minutes of unbearable tension, grotesque imagery and a startling and upsetting performance from Park So-Dam (who shaved her head for the scene) as the demonically possessed Young-Sin, putting Linda Blair to shame in terms of creating a nightmarish figure of pure evil and spite.
Having witnessed a Shaman exorcism fail to work (and look like a perverse Morris Dance) Kim and Choi get down to business in seeking out who or what the demon is, in what was a demanding role for all three actors. Throughout the whole procedure, Kim converses with the demon in four different languages which Choi has to transcribe, while Young-Sin displays multiple personalities, from the benevolent and helpless to the utterly vile and dangerous.
A little CGI is employed in adding some extra layers of discomfort, but it is Park So-Dam’s physicality, the superb make-up and tangible physical special effects that create the true ugliness and horror. It may not be immediately comparable to a certain 1973 horror classic following the same theme, but one can certainly juxtapose Park’s performance with that of young Kim Hwan-Hee in The Wailing.
The two male leads Kim Yun-Seok and Gang Dong-Won are both great as the demon busting priests, despite the fact they basically play the same roles they would in a crime thriller, only wearing a dog collar. In fact, we half expect Father Kim to simply punch the demon out of Young-Sin, he is that jaded and dogmatic!
Jang Jae-Hyun has set himself a huge challenge in adapting his 26-minute short film into a 108 minute one designed for mainstream theatrical release, and this may be why the script has so many flaws, he couldn’t find a way to expand his ideas and successful resolve them while staying true to the original work.
Yet, the production values can’t be faulted and the direction is assured, illustrated by the excellent performances Jang gets from his cast. A valiant debut effort, The Priests shows promise but won’t have you on your knees in praise for Jang just yet.