The Mimic (Jang-san-beom)

Korea (2017) Dir. Huh Jung

“Monkey see, Monkey do” is the commonly used expression when children copy or repeat something they’ve seen or heard which they really shouldn’t have. Quite often, this is harmless enough and they can be weaned off from reoffending, but what if this aping becomes uncomfortable to the point of being psychologically dangerous, say if the copycat is of supernatural descent?

Needing a fresh start after the disappearance of her young son, Hee-Yeon (Yum Jung-Ah), husband Min-Ho (Park Hyuk-Kwon), daughter Jun-Hee (Bang Yu-seol) and sick mother-in-law (Heo Jin) move from the city to a remote house out in the sticks. Shortly after they arrive, two young siblings are looking for their missing dog and find the body of a woman walled up in an abandoned house in the woods nearby.

At the same time whilst walking in the woods near Mount Jang Hee-yeon encounters a dishevelled, mute young girl (Shin Rin-ah) who reminds Hee-Yeon of her missing son so much that she opts to take the girl home. After days of silence, the girl suddenly begins to speak, repeating sentences spoken by Jun-Hee, serving as an ominous precursor to bizarre happenings about the household.

The curious premise for this horror outing is actually based on an old Korean legend of the Jangsan Tiger, a large, white-furred man eating beast that reportedly roamed around the mountains of Busan mimicking the sounds of a woman wailing to lure victims to their death. For his second film, Huh-Jung modernises this folklore tale into a gnarly, often cruel psychological chiller.

It’s cruel because it plays on the emotions of a grieving family, specifically the mother who typically is said to have the closest bond with their child. Losing Jun-suh was a naturally traumatic experience for Hee-Yeon and it might be emotional hysteria, but she clearly feels Min-Ho hasn’t suffered as much as she has, explaining why she finds it so easy to take the mute girl in.

Hee-yeon also explains that see the girl alone and scared makes her think that Jun-suh would in the same position and she hopes that someone would show the same kindness towards him. Min-Ho however has resigned himself to accepting that too much time has passed to believe their son is still alive, an admission that causes much friction between them, along with Min-Ho insisting his mother goes into a care home.

Less forthcoming is why Hee-Yeon calls the mute girl Jun-Hee, the same name as her daughter. This becomes confusing for the viewer as the two girls are very similar in appearance thus we often fail to recognise which girl is responding to Hee-Yeon. Then gain this might just be the trick of the Jangsan Tiger, weaving its pernicious spell on Hee-yeon to lure her into its trap.

Yes, the Tiger is very real and very much alive and kicking in this story, according to a local woman (Kil Hae-Yeon) who provides Hee-Yeon with an historical info dump late in the second act to explain what has been plaguing her and her family. Credit to Huh, he does a job in turning an age old fable into something quite plausible in a modern setting, by way of the hidebound traditional attitudes of rural life in Korea.

Just to spice the stew a little further, the girl is framed as beacon for the tiger and the human manifestation it currently occupies, whose Chi has a finite influence over those around her, casing blindness when it starts to fade. It might sounds like one genre convention too many but Huh is able to wrong some pretty emotionally harrowing scenes out of it in the finale.

As tight as the script is in this instance, in others there are loose ends still flapping about, like the disappearing act by Detective Kim (Lee Yool) the newly arrived police officer working on the case and getting closer to finding the answers. Plus the dementia-suffering mother has a fertile backstory which is never explored that seemingly connects to the tiger’s plan too, her sudden absence left open to conjecture.

Elements of the second half of the film might cause many to make comparisons with 2016’s epic The Wailing largely due to the Shamanistic content. Indeed the ritual scenes in both films are very similar in style, tempo and the way they are edited, but it should be noticed that this film starting shooting six months before The Wailing was released so we can chalk that one down to a happy coincidence.

Horror films life and die buy the performances of the cast, the quality of the effects and the inventiveness behind the scares. Huh is lucky that his film scores highly on all three counts. Addressing these in reverse, Huh masterly plays with our nerves through the creepiness of the sullen, bruised little girl and the compelling influence she has over Hee-Yeon than the usual jumping at shadows tact employed by many.

The ingenious use of mirrors in the final act assuages any fears of a Ringu rip-off suggested in a creepy earlier scene, whilst Huh re-affirms how scarily adept the Koreans are at depicting the unsettling manic fervour of Shamanistic rituals on screen. Production values are high, boasting slick camera work, polished visuals and tight editing but Huh isn’t afraid to loosen up when the need is there.

Despite Hee-Yeon being what is becoming a standard trope in the troubled woman escaping her past, Yum Jung-Ah is able to bring some warmth to the character, cranking up the emotional intensity by the end. In fact, all the females in the cast, young and old, are given juicier roles than the males, except maybe for the sadistic Shaman (Lee Joon-Hyuk), with Shin Rin-ah being a mixture of cuteness and cold demonic terror.

It might take a few blind turns down some confusing and unexplained paths but overall, The Mimic brings enough fresh twists to a standard concept to provide some effective and originally crafted chills.