House Of The Disappeared (Si-gan-wi-ui jib)

Korea (2017) Dir. Lim Dae-woong

This psychological horror/thriller from Korea is in fact a remake of a 2013 Venezuelan film La Casa Del Fin De Los Tiempos (The House At The End Of Time), a rare case of Asian cinema remaking another country’s film and not vice versa, although this has become a bit of trend recently in Asia, with both Japan and China remaking western properties.

Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yunjin) is arrested for the murder of her abusive policeman husband Chul-Joong (Jo Jae-Yun) and apparent disappearance of their young son Hyo-je (Park Sang-hoon). After serving 25 years in prison, a now sickly Mi-hee is released and returns to the house where the alleged murders took place, maintaining her innocence of the charges against her.

A young priest named Choi (Ok Taec-yeon), a childhood friend of Jyo-je arrives at the house to offer support to Mi-hee and absolution if she confesses, but the story Mi-hee recounts for Choi is an unusual one, putting the blame on evil spirits in the house. Choi’s investigation into the house reveals its history as a haunted house and the apparent mysterious familicide from back in the 1960’s.

I imagine if one has already seen the Venezuelan original (with it’s much cooler title) then there is little surprise in the storyline and how it plays out; for a complete neophyte such as myself however this is quite a beguiling and often baffling tale. It does has certain themes running through it which undercut the supernatural element that may not translate too well should there be a US remake, which seems almost inevitable.

The aforementioned occult side is crucial to the direction the story takes but not in the way that is immediately obvious – in fact, after a delirious and terse prologue followed by a solemnly measured first act, the second act picks up with a few surprises before the final stretch flips everything on its head. Maybe not much of a surprise to anyone familiar with K-horror but given its South American origins, even the most seasoned horror fan will be caught out by this one.

Looking at it in hindsight, the original title does give the game away a little bit so we need to address this in the plot discussion. The film opens in 1992 before resuming in 2017, flitting between the two timelines for a now aged Mi-hee’s revelations to father Choi about what really happened on that fateful night. But there is more, as Choi uncovers the history of the house which takes us back even further to 1942 and then 1967.

While the significance of the 25 year gap between dates isn’t revealed until late in the film, it does widen the scope of the root of this bizarre occurrence which Lim Dae-Woong and co-writer Jang Jae-Hyun manages to tie in with Korean history. This makes me curious as to what the original film had as its cause and whether it involves a similar cultural and social foundation relevant to Venezuela.

Flashbacks reveal that Chul-Joong wasn’t a great father or husband, an overworked cop prone to drinking and taking his moods out on his family. They also introduce another son, Ji-Won (Go Woo-rim), from Chul-Joong’s previous marriage who tragically died after running off on his own, for which an angry Chul-Joong blames Hyo-je for. Meanwhile Choi digs up stories of a Japanese general setting up home during the occupation, recalling the age old ghost story of houses being cursed for being built on Indian burial grounds.

Admittedly there is a lot going on here and 99 minutes barely seems sufficient to fit it all in and make sense but Lim does an admirable job in tying up the various threads and not in a way that makes the viewer say “Ah, of course”. The time hopping seems like a natural way for the narrative to unfold, its usefulness becoming clearer in ways we don’t expect, quite brilliantly I might add, not that the final explanation offers any real clarity, but since when does horror make sense?  

Whether in 1992 or 2017, the one constant trait of Mi-hee is that she is a mother and as such she will do anything to protect her children. Sometimes this means making rash decisions, sometimes it means making sacrifices that have severe consequences but for Mi-hee, her circumstances are born out of a situation wrapped in a deep mystery. This facet of the story may remain a little muddy but the emotional clout it brings to the denouement is rather potent in a bittersweet way.

The horror side runs on two levels – firstly in providing the requisite scares and satisfying the supernatural twist, and second, in the fact that Mi-hee knows the truth behind the events of 1992 but can’t prove any of them. Visually, Lim eschews CGI and relies on juddering camera movements, quick edits and frantic zooms to disturb the moment and heighten our sense of confusion and unrest. The rest is down to simple atmospherics and the dreary veneer of the colour palette.

Kim Yunjin is the film’s other main weapon, her award winning sympathetic performance sees her meeting the challenge of portraying the same woman at two ages convincingly without losing the integrity of the character. Behind the effective make-up and white hair is a distraught mother still determined to be there for her son, and while her body is ravaged, Mi-hee’s spirit remains indomitable.

What one gets from House Of The Disappeared depends entirely on how you approach its viewing. It is not gory enough for hardened horror fans looking for consistent shocks but is unsettling within the context of a paranormal chiller; meanwhile the poignant drama and mystery behind the alleged murders can stand alone to make for a solid and equally captivating thriller.

It’s a curious but adroit blend of compatible genres that may or may not hold up to scrutiny in comparison to the original, which makes seeking that film out an enticing prospect.