Credit: Well Go USA
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

Exhuma — Jang Jae-hyun

June 14, 2024

Director Jang Jae-hyun’s new supernatural thriller Exhuma covers a lot of ground during its two-plus hour runtime; what begins as a detailed procedural gradually gives way to ghostly possession, demonic resurrection, and eventually a pointed examination of the bitter history between Imperial Japan and South Korea. Indeed, the exhumation of the title is not just referring to literal description of digging up bodies (although there is plenty of that) but also an excavation of a historical trauma. There’s a lot to chew on here, but at least Exhuma is never boring.

Things kick off with shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and her protege Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) arriving in Los Angeles at the behest of a wealthy Korean businessman, Park Ji-Yong (Kim Jae-chul). He now lives abroad with his wife and elderly father and is convinced that a vengeful spirit is haunting his newborn son. The child is, according to doctors, in perfect physical health, and yet won’t stop crying unless heavily sedated. Mr. Park wants Hwa-rim to investigate and then solve this supernatural conundrum. She takes the job, returning to Korea to enlist the aid of Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and Yeong-geun (Yoo Hae-jin), two old-timers prone to bemoaning the state of their peculiar industry. Kim helps clients select the perfect plot of land on which to place their final resting spot, while Yeong-geun runs a mortuary. Together, they also assist families whose ancestors were incorrectly buried or are otherwise displeased with their afterlife.

These early scenes have a peculiar energy; Jang presents this squad of paranormal investigators as straightforward, almost quotidian, working-class laborers. There is no time wasted on convincing other characters (or the audience) of the veracity of their various claims — in this world, the vengeful spirits of deceased family members are very real, and can only be dealt with via various rituals and some very specific expertise. They are not crooks or con artists, although money is tight (critics who have compared Exhuma to Ghostbusters aren’t exactly wrong, although the comparison is of limited utility). Eventually, the group uncovers the resting place of Mr. Park’s grandfather. Kim is reluctant to move forward with the job — the remote resting place (nestled near the DMZ between North and South Korea) and discrete tombstone are incongruous with the man’s social status at the time of his death. Kim refuses to complete the job, but the others need the money, and the wealth of Mr. Park trumps all other concerns.

Soon, the grandfather’s grave is exhumed, a fairly stunning sequence of ritualistic excess involving pig carcasses, tribal drumming, and frenzied dancing from Hwa-rim. Things go awry, of course, and the grandfather’s spirit is unleashed into the world. What follows is a series of distressingly creepy set pieces detailing the spirit’s vengeance taken upon all of its living descendants. Now, it’s a race against time, as Hwa-rim and the others must complete a new ritual to dispel the spirit before it reaches its final victim, the newborn child still in the ICU. Jang has an absolute ball with these ghostly encounters, shooting the specter only in reflective surfaces as it stalks its victims and chokes the life out of them. Genre fans will find their patience amply rewarded here.

In any other movie, the vanquishing of an evil spirit and the ultimate fate of an innocent child would likely be a grand final act. But here, the film is barely halfway over. Several months after the events of the first half, Kim discovers that one of the workers who helped dig up the grandfather’s grave has grown ill. It seems that the man saw a bizarre creature in the dirt of the exhumed site — a snake with the head of a woman — and, in haste, lopped its head off with a shovel. This impulsive act has unleashed a second curse, leading to the discovery of a seven-foot coffin buried vertically beneath the grandfather’s own coffin. Wrapped in razor wire, the group wonders if the coffin is supposed to keep grave robbers out or, more ominously, keep something inside. What follows is a long, detailed accounting of a Japanese shaman and the grandfather’s history as a disgraced collaborator with Japanese invaders in the first half of the 20th century. There’s much mixing of folklores here, including discussions about the differences between Japanese and Korean ghosts, the commingling of Buddhism and Christianity, and the requisite horror imagery that the genre requires. It seems likely that audiences familiar with Korean history and spiritual practices will comprehend more of what’s going on, but the filmmakers are careful to explain things to viewers who might be otherwise unaware of such things. It’s a tricky balance, but one that Jang mostly pulls off. Exhuma is never particularly scary; there is almost no emphasis whatsoever on bed-wetting terror or jump scares. But the film does establish a palpable sense of all-consuming dread, a build-up of uncanny strangeness that fosters an oppressive mood of despair. In other words, Exhuma is a solid little night at the movies for those inclined toward bad vibes.

DIRECTOR: Jang Jae-hyun;  CAST: Choi Min-sik, Kim Go-eun, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Jae-chul;  DISTRIBUTOR: Well Go USA;  STREAMING: June 4;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 13 min.