Credit: Fantasia Fest
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Horizon Line

Seire — Kang Park

June 28, 2023

Grief, guilt, and superstition slowly wreak havoc on the mind of a recent father, as he grapples with the death of a former lover. Seire, Park Kang’s feverish cinematic debut, draws its title from the Korean custom of shielding newborns from the outside world for 21 days, as it’s believed they are particularly susceptible to the influence of bad luck, bad spirits, or whatever other form the world’s sinister forces might take.

The past catches up with Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo), after he receives a text informing him of his ex-girlfriend’s death. He and his wife, Hae-mi (Sim Eun-woo), have just welcomed their first child, but Woo-jin has been preoccupied with the bizarre nightmares that have been plaguing him, filled with rotten apples and haunted by a pregnant woman who turns out to be his deceased ex, Se-young (Ryu Abel). After learning of her premature passing, his dreams intensify, growing stranger and more unsettling each night, before eventually bleeding over into the daytime as well. When informing his wife of Se-young’s death, Woo-jin doesn’t tell her who’s funeral it is, referring to his ex only as a “college classmate.” Still, his wife begs him not to go, since she is terrified of the misfortune that might befall their newborn. Woo-jin, who doesn’t share his wife’s superstitious beliefs, goes anyway and ends up meeting Se-young’s twin sister, Ye-young (also Ryu Abel). He is uneasy about the prospect of a confrontation with his past, especially in this grim setting, but nonetheless agrees to go to the burial the next day. However, as the three-day funeral carries on, strange things begin to happen. First, Woo-jin and Hae-mi’s baby develops a mysterious fever, and then Hae-mi’s pregnant sister, who lives next door, begins to feel like something might be wrong with her unborn baby as well.

Seire pits old-fashioned superstitions against modern-day rationalism, preoccupied with dreams, birth, death, and the intangibles that lie beyond the realm of so-called common sense. Rotting fruit, crying babies, sexual desire — Park’s film plays on our inherited visceral reactions and lizard-brained impulses with some memorable imagery, as well as an ability to shift between dreams and reality without having to resort to cheap gimmickry. As the story unfolds and Woo-jin falls deeper into the chasm that has opened up before him, lines become increasingly blurred and the imagined seemingly makes its way into the real. Hae-mi reacts by making her husband partake in antiquated rituals, at one point pelting him with rice, and later making him commit petty theft so that any potential curse can be directed away from their child. Woo-jin, meanwhile, spirals further into a severe spiritual crisis he seems incapable of finding his way out of. Wracked with guilt and unable to trust his own senses, he’s forced to contend with his past relationship and the way in which it ended. But he soon begins to suspect that, perhaps, his dead ex-girlfriend might somehow be trying to punish him for his misdeeds from beyond the grave.

Introduced as a committed father and husband, dutifully going along with his wife’s wishes with regards to the seire-related rituals, the film begins to imply a darker side of the personality of the slightly oddball family man and his past behavior, especially as the specifics of his six-year relationship with Se-young and the circumstances surrounding her death begin to reveal themselves. Faced with nightmares, hallucinations, ominous visions, and life-altering tragedy, Woo-jin’s mental state continuously deteriorates, the confrontation with the unknown pushing him to the brink of his sanity and bringing to light some of the ugliness that he had previously hidden away from others — and maybe even himself. It’s a lot of moving parts, but while Park’s deliberately paced psychological horror drama doesn’t fully commit to the ambiguity it so expertly maintains for most of its runtime — the ending feels strangely and uncharacteristically on the nose Seire still offers a lot of oneiric weirdness, shocking gross-out effects, and some moments of genuine, pitch-black humor, all of which make it worth seeking out.

Published as part of Fantasia Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 6.