Imaginative Korean Horror Exhuma Gives Old Spirits New Life

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Imaginative Korean Horror Exhuma Gives Old Spirits New Life

Writer/director Jang Jae-hyun’s Exhuma bobs and weaves in ways American exorcism stories couldn’t fathom. Shades of The Wailing’s transformative storytelling covers its haunted burial grounds, traditional exhumation practices and resentful spirits, all with filmmaking ambitions that think outside the (coffin) box. Exhuma presents as ordinary until it’s not, a splendid feature of slippery South Korean thrillers. Jang’s gravedigging ghost hunt takes multiple forms, each one more ferocious than the last, as nationalist histories manifest as a seething threat to modern generations.

Exhuma follows a quartet of afterlife specialists: There’s renowned shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun), her full-body inked partner Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun), “Geomancer” AKA feng shui master Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and mortician Yeong-geun (Yoo Hae-jin). A wealthy Korean American family hires Hwa-rim and Bong-gil to eliminate a “Grave’s Call” curse afflicting their newborn son; Sang-deok and Yeong-geun are enlisted to help locate the problem ancestor’s grave. Together, near North Korea’s border, the party discovers a nameless tombstone. They’re in the right place, but Sang-deok can’t shake an alarming aura around the site. Some jobs aren’t worth the payday, as Sang-deok and his fellow undead bloodhounds are about to find out.

Jang’s approach welcomes international audiences into South Korean lore, where spirituality thrives without scoffs or sarcasm—it’s an immersive treat because there’s no disbelief or doubt to bog down the storytelling. Hwa-rim doesn’t waste time clashing against that one annoying pest who continually downplays supernatural experiences (the “they’re not real” plant). A propulsive energy trims fatty tropes off Exhuma’s lean cut of vengeful, hereditary malevolence.

The result is a simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying mystery. Hwa-rim’s shamanistic dances— complete with ceremonial blades—are agile poetry in motion, as she slices into pig carcasses in rhythm with Bong-gil’s trance-like drumbeat. There’s an alluring intimacy here, but Jang never loses sight of the frights that await. Exhuma exploits the reality of Japanese loyalists during the Korean occupation era in the same way that Taiwan’s Detention incorporates the tragic military oppression of yesteryear. Specters are adorned with samurai features, sometimes recalling a less-erotic Blood Beat. Jang’s scripted swerves set convention ablaze, especially when smashing the barrier between ghastly paranormal plotting and outright creature-feature savagery.

Throughout, it paints a rich tapestry of South Korean genre attributes. Imagery like Bong-gil’s Buddhist scripture tattoos or souls-turned-fireballs streaking across the midnight skies become fantastical accents on an eerie folkloric portrait. The violence aims for maximalist impact, ranging from blood-dripping severed heads to the nauseatingly loud sound design of bones cracking as possessed individuals contort their bodies into inhuman positions. It’s been executed before, but Jang develops his own distinct flavors. Scenes are drenched in sweat, specifically and expressively South Korean, and organically chilling by virtue of their thorough conceptualization.

Exhuma is a freshly squeezed horror refresher. That might sound like pedestrian praise, but competency always reigns supreme. Spew hyperbole all you want; Jang deserves your compliments. But, at its core, Exhuma is a wildly imaginative take on a familiar narrative that deserves your attention not because it reinvents the genre, but because it punches an old take into a newfound gear. Jang’s Exhuma is a multifaceted contender, from its special effects to its profound performances, to snatch 2024’s horror release crown.

Director: Jang Jae-Hyun
Writers: Jang Jae-Hyun
Starring: Choi Min-Sik, Kim Go-Eun, Yoo Hai-Jin, Lee Do-Hyun
Release Date: June 4, 2024

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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