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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Exhuma’ is an intelligent well-crafted horror film steeped in Korean culture and history

Exhuma is an intelligent horror film that takes its time to build its horror and dresses it up in the full effects of Korean shamanism.

As horror films go, Jang Jae-hyun’s ‘Exhuma’ takes a different approach to frightening its audience. At a 134 minutes, director and screenwriter Jang Jae-hyun takes his time to unravel his rather simple story of an exorcism gone horribly wrong. He presents his characters – the charming and very competent young shamans Hwa-rim (Kim Go Eun) and Bong-gil (Lee Do Hyun) – as confident, maybe even cocky, as they take a case involving a rich Korean-American client living in Los Angeles, whose baby seems haunted by an evil spirit. In their initial inspection, they discover that the haunting spirit is an old one, one that is passed from generation to generation and that the ancestral spirit may be back in Korea. This powerful spirit, one they call ‘A Grave’s Call,’ requires a bigger team and they employ a veteran geomancer, Sang-duk (Choi Min-sik) and his partner Yeong Geun (Yoo Hae Jin) to join the ritual. It’s only when the four spiritualists arrive at an unmarked grave atop a deserted mountain that they realize this is far more sinister and evil than they could have imagined.

This whole set up takes over half an hour to put things in motion. What makes it so riveting and fascinating to watch is the way that tension and dread pervades each scene without spilling out into cheesy cheap scares. Director Jang allows his characters – Hwa-rim and company – to be so serious about the work and yet calm and casual outside of it. It shows off their familiarity with each other and uses their relationship dynamics to establish them as human beings that we come to like as an audience. We know something bad is coming and now, 40 minutes into the movie, we like these characters a lot that we don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

Without any huge frightening scenes, director Jang builds the tension using very detailed, very precise dramatization of the shamanistic rituals for cleansing spirits and for exhuming the buried dead to transfer to more auspicious grave sites. Those familiar with these rituals from watching Kdrama will know there’s a lot of music, chanting, and dancing and the film isn’t shy of showing the whole process and captures it for its full cinematic appeal. Kim Go Eun and Lee Do Hyun are exquisite and all they are doing is dancing or dancing with knives (Kim) or drumming and chanting (Lee) but they do it with such conviction and the camera work, quick editing, and exquisite sound designs turns each into such a spectacle that you are overwhelmed by the severity of the rite. It underscores the seriousness of the undertaking. Without showing a single scary image, the ritual alone in full display is enough to create this feeling of dread and fear. Somehow it manages to impress upon you that “damn, I hope it works” and you are actually more attuned to the outcome of all of this.

And when things go south, it takes an unexpected turn. Past the one-hour mark, you realise the story is much deeper, much richer in its exploration of South Korea’s history. This is not just some simple exorcism movie. It’s about past trauma that has yet to be resolved. 

It is in the simplicity and the straightforward execution of the narrative that makes ‘Exhuma’ such a joy to watch. It is frightening but it does not rely on jump scares for it. It does so by creating set ups, allowing us to recognize the danger and see it unfold within the story. It does not try to surprise us. Instead, it allows us to follow it as it compounds and compounds.

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Unfortunately, the final act feels drawn out and over-extended. Everything leading up to it is so strong, so exciting. When the grand finale happens, there’s a lot of unnecessary talking, actions are repeated, and the pacing suffers immensely. It could have been fast and quick but Jang Jae-hyun is having too much fun with his elements all coming together. But the final image still makes it landing and does not undermine all the fantastic work that set everything up.

Exhuma’ is an intelligent horror film that takes its time to build its horror and dresses it up in the full effects of Korean shamanism. It’s culturally and historically rich and steeped in its folklore. The cast, especially Kim Go Eun, is terrific and it can be surprising in its narrative turns. 

My Rating:


Exhuma premieres this March 20. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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Exhuma
Horror, Mystery, Thriller
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