Show Me The Ghost (syo-mi-deo-go-seu-teu)

Korea (2021) Dir. Kim Eun-kyoung

There are a lot of things that could jeopardise a long term relationship between friends – lies, betrayal, arguments over money, dating each other’s partners (if the scenario fits) and ghosts. Okay, that last one may not be a typical catalyst for a strained friendship in real life so thank god for cinema.

Ho-Doo (Kim Hyun-Mok) works in a convenience store and one rainy night, his oldest friend of 20 years Ye-Ji (Han Seung-Yeon) shows up in a distraught, drunken state having failed another interview for top job and her parents throwing her out of their home. When she was flush, Ye-Ji lent Ho-Doo $15,000 and asks for it back but he used it towards the $20,000 deposit on a cheap but fully furnished house.

Ye-Ji moves in with Ho-Doo, but feels there must be a catch since Ho-Doo got a such a good deal. Shortly after, spooky things begin to happen around the house, and according to their gauche neighbour Byeong-Jae (Lee Joo-hyeop), the previous tenant So-Hee (Im Chae-Young), committed suicide because the house was supposedly possessed by evil spirits. Unable to break the lease, Ye-Ji and Ho-Doo search for an exorcist to cleanse their house.

Billed as a comedy-horror, anyone who knows Korean cinema should be wary of the fact the comedy aspect will taper off at the halfway point and give way to a serious second half. Show Me The Ghost doesn’t disappoint in sticking to this practice, but given the nature of the story, it is also duty bound to get a bit dark. That said, it subtly shifts away from the supernatural to deliver a timely reminder that people can be monsters too.

Former game and animation artist Kim Eun-kyoung – she worked on the classic anime Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust – gives live action filmmaking a try with this amiable debut. The bright gaudy colour palette provide a hint of Kim’s former job, as if she attacked the set with a giant paint brush herself, whilst her first foray into screenwriting shows signs of a keen mind in story construction, if less apparent in the pacing.

Deciding to wrong foot the audience from the start, the film opens with Ho-Doo in the convenience store trying to converse with a taciturn tramp (Han Sang-cheol-I) late at night. Suddenly, the lights flicker and Ho-Doo turns round to see a long haired woman in the shadows, giving him a fright. Except it is only a bedraggled, wet and sozzled Ye-Ji, upset at her latest failure in life.

With his pudding bowl hair cut, chubby face, and slightly effete demeanour, Ho-Doo is posited as a push over, which Ye-Ji as an overpowering personality, presumably knows. Her imposing on Ho-Doo is rationalised by the fact it was her money that paid for most of the deposit, and even after 20 years of friendship, Ho-Doo isn’t going to argue. Maybe if Ye-Ji knew the house was haunted…  

Interestingly, nothing too sinister has gone on in the house: lights flicker, a small doll keeps ending up on the floor which Ye-Ji treads on, and odd smells taint the air. After failing to get the deposit back, they try selling the house but every time a buyer shows interest, the ghost interferes and scares them off! Ye-Ji then consults the internet for DIY exorcism tips, and you can guess how that works out. So, it is back to Google to find a cheap exorcist, yielding Gi-Doo (Hong Seung-bum).

Sadly, a drawback to Gi-Doo’s shamanistic methods is exposed when the ghost appears – he is afraid of them! Gi-Doo is descended from a line of shamans but he isn’t very good; he wanted to be a pop singer, except the ghosts wouldn’t leave him alone. This sounds like the plot from a Stephen Chow film (Out Of The Dark comes very close) but the potential knockabout comedy isn’t mined as much as it could have been.

A major reason for this comes with the revelation of why So-Hee committed suicide, and it had nothing to do with ghosts. The aforementioned tonal shift brings the frivolity to a screeching halt and with good reason. What makes this somewhat frustrating is this plot could have worked as a tense dark drama and not a second act twist to add weight to a comedy.

Kim shows herself to be adept in adding emotional depth to the drama and the gnarly tension instigated by the haunting aspect prior to this, reiterating the above opinion that this could have been a viable plot for a thriller. Although a little late, the mood is gravid with despair and discomfort as the mystery unfolds and builds to a rushed climax, sadly fleeting for being limited to the final act, whilst the identity of the eventual antagonist is rather predictable.

Purely speculation, I suspect maybe Kim had something to say with this new direction but not much confidence in being able to eke it out for the duration (a rather brisk 83 minutes), hence the extended comedy prelude. Naturally, it is hard to sustain laughs for an entire film, and in this instance, few gags raise more than a titter despite the manic efforts of the cast, Han Seung-Yeon in particular is a gem just waiting to sparkle in a big prestige production.

Meanwhile, seeds are sown early on that things might get more sinister later on, making for an awkward oscillation between serious issues and comic frippery, even if they are bound by the one storyline. Kim just about holds it together but it is hard to reconcile the heart and determination of the characters in the final stretch when juxtaposed with their goofy antics from before.

Remarkably, it is hard not to be too critical of Show Me The Ghost even with its flaws, in part due to the swift run time, strong performances, a thoughtful plot, and a genuinely great ending. As a passable timewaster, this does the job just fine.