After Dark: K-Horror – Programmer’s Note

Korean horror, or K-horror, has history. It could be argued that Kim Ki-young’s classic The Housemaid (1960) was horror in much the same way that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) were. The Housemaid was certainly as influential as these films (and has been remade many times, including twice by Kim himself). Yet it was in the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, that horror would really come into its own, as censorship was relaxed with the end of military dictatorship, as a host of young filmmakers would prove deft at switching codes and genres, and as the accomplished results of their work would perfectly match the criteria of Tartan’s Asia extreme label, guaranteeing them an audience outside of Korea.


So, over the last few decades, the haunted high-school hallways of the Whispering Corridors series (1998-2009, 2021-), the ghostly psychodrama of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), the Carpenter-esque war-is-hell manœuvres of Kong Su-chang’s R-Point (2004), the Zola-adapting vampirism of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009), the barrelling locomotive undead of Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016), the ambiguous smalltown devilry of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), and the found-footage freakery of Jung Bum-shik’s Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) have all left their imprint on the international consciousness, while coming with a decidedly local flavour of fear.


Both in celebration of this “Horror Wave”, and also just because it has been a very good year for genre cinema in Korea, the London Korean Film Festival is putting on a special strand devoted to contemporary Korean horror. This includes Kang Dong-hun’s twisted haunted house/family saga Contorted (2021), in which a new rental home becomes an arena for a dysfunctional clan’s toxic dissolution. Then there is Sim Deok-geon’s Guimoon: The Lightless Door (2021), set in a single space (a cursed community centre) over multiple, intersecting timelines, as different characters drawn to the abandoned building in different years keep crossing paths in their desperate attempts to escape a doom that may already have happened.


Meanwhile Park Kang’s Seire (2021) is an adult film about a newborn ritual, as a father ignores his wife and mother-in-law’s superstitions surrounding postpartum care and exposes himself to ill-omened encounters (a funeral, an encounter with the identical twin of his late ex-girlfriend) and then finds his home life unravelling. And last but not least is Park Sye-young’s messy mattress horror The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (2021), in which the intensity and impermanence of human relations are shown from the peculiar perspective of a mutating, spine-eating fungus, with unexpectedly moving results. Given its relatively brief duration (60 minutes), this will be accompanied by Park’s (non-horror) short film about Korean barter culture and real values, Cashbag.


Another obvious inclusion might have been Jeong Ji-yeon’s mesmerically disorienting feature debut The Anchor (2022) about several women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that can instead be seen in this year’s Cinema Now strand. 


Anton Bitel