Last week I reviewed A Light Sleep starting a project I hope to continue of watching all the movies in my collection in the order they are shelved. I have had this idea for a while since there are many movies I own that I haven’t had time to see, but I delayed because I was waiting for my copy of The Wig to arrive as that would be first on the shelf (they are ordered in Hangul). But The Wig has been on backorder for the past two months so I started last week without it. I actually do not know how long I will be able to watch films and review them in order–as of today I have 522 Korean films & short film collections–Reviewing one per week would take me ten years to finish. Two or three per week is possible during the summer and winter breaks, but with classes, commisioned writing for magazines and exchange program work such a schedule would be impossible. So I will watch and review as I can without giving myself stress or committing myself to an impossible task. With all that said, the next movie in my collection is Nightmare aka The Horror Game Movie from 2000.
Before I begin a review though, I have to discuss the titles of this film. When I am doing research on old Korean films, I often come across ads from the time that contain an English title only to discover that KOFA or KOFIC is calling it something else. For example, an ad for the 1972 Lee Hyeong-pyo film calls the movie A School Mistress while KOFA calls it A Woman Teacher on its website. Normally, this bothers me. However, in rare cases I approve of the change and Nightmare is one of those cases. If you look at the poster above and at the other two versions of the poster printed in 2000, you see the name The Horror Game Movie. That title is horrible and has nothing to do with the film. It is also far removed from the meaning of the Korean title Gawi. Gawi is not exactly a nightmare either, but it is closer in meaning than ‘horror game.’ Gawi is a phenomenon where a person feels pressure on his’her chest and wakes to see a ghost trying to suffocate the sleeper. Now, before you scoff and dismiss it as legend, let me add a few things. I have lived here now for more than 15 years. During that time, I have often let one or two students at a time live in my home–I own a three-bedroom apartment, too big for one person and I enjoy the company. I have heard about a dozen different gawi stories— 99% of the time, the ghost is a long haired woman as seen in movies though in one case the student told me of a thin old man. Each time, they said, the ghost would crawl onto them and try to choke them or just rest on their chest so they couldn’t draw a breath. One of my more recent tenents was angry at me for not waking him when he was attacked by a ghost. While I do have my own ‘ghost’ story from my college days (that still terrifies me whenever I think about it–and I’m not even sure I 100% believe in ghosts), I have never experienced a gawi. Each person who told me about the gawi attack was under some other stress at the time such as exams, preparing to study abroad or preparing to graduate and begin a job hunt. However, the manifestation of this stress took a very specific and consistent form. It would make an interesting research paper for a cultural anthropology journal…
Before beginning to write, a read a couple of other reviews online and saw that the authors were complaining how they were tired of long-haired ghosts and how they were all a copy of Ring or how it had been done already in Whispering Corridors or Memento Mori. The appearance of ghosts is not a post-Ring phenomenon. Look back at Korean horror films of the 60s and 70s. The long, unkempt hair covering the face and sometimes used to ensnare people has always been present. Ghosts often wear long white dresses because that is what people are buried in. Even the idea of a long-haired woman ghost living in a well, made famous by Ring, was a concept that can be found in A Ghost Story of the Joseon Dynasty (1970) by Shin Sang-ok. I am not saying he originated the idea, but neither did Ring. To make a gawi anything but a long-haired woman ghost would in fact be making it a non-gawi.
Actually, while reading other people’s reviews complaining about the ghost, I was actually thinking “Was there really a ghost?’ In regards to the more famous Tale of Two Sisters, I am firmly in the camp that says there is no ghost anywhere in the movie. It is all in the head of a young woman with a guilty conscience and an Elektra Complex. In the case of real gawi experiences, I chalk it up to stress. In Nightmare, the grisly killings can also be credited to one of two characters rather than fully depending on a supernatural explanation.
The story revolves around a group of six friends who have yet to fully recover from the apparent suicide of a seventh member of their clique. This is partly because on the night she died, they had all turned against her due to the efforts of one of their members Sun-ae. Sun-ae, Hye-jin and the dead Eun-ju-formerly-known-as-Kyeong-ah grew up together in a small village. Their were always rumors about the odd Kyeong-ah–stories of possession and death seemed to follow anywhere she went.–A shaman performing an exorcism on her dies, a bus she is riding on overturns and she is the only survivor. Hye-jin’s father drowns trying to reach Kyeong-ah on a frozen river– Kyeong-ah moved away and changed her name to escape these rumors. Now in the same university, Sun-ae recognizes Eun-ju for who she was and tells the group of friends who had welcomed her in about her past. The group, already nervous around Eun-ju because strange things always happen in her presence (was that cat resurrected?), turn on her and reject her as a friend leading to her death.
What happens next is familar to anyone who has seen a horror or slasher film in the last 3 decades. The members of the group are killed off one by one in grusome ways. The question is, who is doing it? We see the ghost doing the killing but, like a ‘real’ gawi, perhaps only the person being harmed sees it. A witness to one of the crimes gives a description to the police of a woman leaving the scene and the artist rendititin looks like one of the surviving members. Later in the film, a crazed character trying to save his reputation screams out that “I did it! I killed them all!” Such a confession leads credence to the idea that their is not ghost. Even the ‘twist’ ending of the movie cannot be put down to supernatural actions as the character who is experiencing it is known to have escaped from a mental institution where she was receiving treatment to help her overcome her guilt. The film leaves it open for either interpretation–ghost or killer/s and I for one like it that way. I don’t want to see a horror movie that explains everything to me.
The acting in this movie is much better than it derseves to be. While the plot may appear somewhat standard with one character being killed off at a time, the actors are all outstanding. You have quite a few now big-named actors at the start of their careers. Notably, Ha Ji-won and Yoo Ji-tae. I read one review which complained about Kim Gyu-ri’s character Hye-jin and her continued calmness and skepticism even after experiencing supernatural events. I can’t complain about it because I was feeling the same way. Her initial contact with a ‘ghost’ happens while she was sleeping and she could have just as easily fallen asleep in the library when she was wounded by the child form of Kyeong-ah–a wound that she notes is no longer there when she is fully awake and safely in the elevator. Incidently, this is the Kim Gyu-ri from Whispering Corridors 1 and Bunshinaba NOT the Kim Gyu-ri from Whispering Corridors 2: Memento Mori and Bloody Beach.
In general, I enjoyed the film although I did not love it. It was interesting looking at it from two angles after the movie was finished–one from a supernatural perspective and one from a logical stance.