Seen in Jeonju

Supernatural Cats in Korean Cinema

13th July 2011

catRecently, Korean audiences have been treated to the release of a horror film called The Cat. You might not notice it sandwiched as it is between the releases of the overblown Transformers 3 and the much-hyped Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, however it did manage to squeak by and land at number two in this past weekend’s box office. I mentioned in the post below how cat’s used to be more important in Korean horror films in the earlier decades, but had pretty much faded from view until this year.  I am not talking about a living cat being used as a false scare to make the audience jump, I am talking about honest to goodness ghost cats who come back from beyond the grave to seek revenge.  The Japanese film Juon (and its American remake, The Grudge) was a good example of this where the souls of  Toshio and the black cat seemed intertwined. Few western films deal with cats-as-ghosts, although they often appear in horror film and fiction as familiars to witches.  Pet Semetery (1989) comes close with the zombie cat ressurected from a pet cemetary, but that is not really a spirit and I don’t remember it doing much of anything besides looking menacing. The classic film Cat People from 1944 (and its far less classic 1985 remake) does not really fit the bill either as the cats are not really ghosts, rather a sub-race of humans.  One Canadian film from 1977, The Uncanny starring Peter Cushing talks about the supernatural nature of cats and a French film, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973) also seems to have a ghost cat, but other than these, western ghost-cats are few and far between. One of the reasons for this may be that cats, frankly are not very scary. If you were a Hollywood director and given the choice of making a horror movie about a ghost cat or a Zuni fetish doll, the doll would win everytime (Trilogy of Terror -1975 Zuni Fetish Doll!!)

bloodthirsty killerHowever, ghostly cats seeking revenge have been haunting Korean cinemas on and off for several decades. I will be giving you a short list of some examples I am aware of.  The earliest of these vengeful cats from beyond the graves seems to be from the 1965 movie A Bloodthirsty Killer (sometimes listed as a A Devilish Homicide) directed by Lee Yong-min.  This movie is not only the first cat/ghost, but it is also the most easily available to see as it was released on DVD with English subtitles. In this movie, we witness as a kind, beautiful and faithful young wife is brutally disfigured and killed by a tag-team comprised of her mother-in-law and her housemaid. The lovely young woman is finally bricked behind a wall with her cat and, later it is determined that the cat fed on its mistress’ flesh to keep alive as long as it could. Their souls appear linked in their quest for revenge against the family that wronged them and the cat ghost possesses the body of the recently slain grandmother for one of the most bizarre and disturbing scenes in any Korean film of that decade– The grandmother with a cat soul giving her sleeping grandchildren a tongue bath as she prepares to devour them…  I really love the poster pictured left with the cat reclining in a robe.

ghost story of joseon dynastyFive years later, in 1970 the master director Shin Sang-ok gave us what may be the greatest cat-horror film ever, A Ghost Story of the Joseon Dynasty. The rather uninspired English title masks a wonderfully engrossing story. I have been lucky enough to see this on tv three or four times over the years, but it is not yet on DVD. In the movie, Yoon Pil-woo is killed by the prince who has falsly filed treason charges against him. The prince framed Yoon for the simple reason that he is lusting after Yoon’s beautiful wife, Ya-hwa. However, before she can be violated by the mad monarch, Ya-hwa kills herself with a knife. As she lies bleeding on the floor, she begs her beloved pet cat to drink her pooling blood and seek revenge for her and her husband. Their souls now joined, the ghost appears as either a monstrous black cat (in one scene a gigantic, almost human sized forearm lashes out at a palace guard–we do not see the whole cat) or as a more traditional long-haired ghost. This film is interesting for another reason. There is a scene in it which called to mind the Japanese film Ring (1998) as it is revealed that the bloodthirsty ghost is living in a well just outside of town.

remodeled beautyFive more years pass and we have another cat-based horror, Remodeled Beauty (1975) directed by Jang Il-ho. Jang is more likely to be known for his melodramatic  films such as  The One Love reviewed here. However, he also gave us one of the strangest of the cat horror films. The KMDb opens its summary of the film in this way: “(O)bstetrician Jeon Dong-kuk’s wife gives birth to a cat baby. Taking a pessimistic view of this, he replaces the baby with a newborn baby in the hospital.”  I love the matter of fact way it is written! I would think that if someone gave birth to a ‘cat baby’ (kitten?) they probably would be a little more than pessimistic.  19 years later, Dr. Jeon encounters the cat woman again as she is going in for plastic surgery to make her look normal. It is here that the film takes a turn towards the supernatural for, as the cat-woman’s face is restored, the young woman Dr. Jeon has raised since infancy as his own, develops cat-like features.  The girls are linked and curing his daughter means disfiguring his biological daughter who is seeking a ghastly revenge for being abandoned.

public cemetary of grudgesThen in 1983, we are given a film entitled The Public Cemetery of Grudges directed by Kim In-soo. While the English and Korean titles of this film seems to associate the movie with the more-famous but mostly catless horror film, The Public Cemetery of Wolha (1967), Kim’s movie is actually a remake of Shin Sang-ok’s A Ghost Story of the Joseon Dynasty listed above. Modernized and with different character names, the basic plot is the same. Wealthy Jo wants So-ya, but she is already married. Jo kills her husband and So-ya kills herself. She instructs her cat to drink her blood and seek revenge. As before, the cat gains supernatural powers. After this film, cats as a source of horror disappeared..until this year. The Cat is now in theaters and if you are in Korea, you have the chance to watch it.  Or, if you are not in Korea, wait a few months and take the chance on the DVD.

Recently, I had been thinking about getting a cat–not a ghost-cat, just a regular old cat.  I visited the Animal Rescue League Korea ( for several months while I made a decision.  Since 2008, I have owned my own house, so I am not at the whim of landlords as to whether or not I can have a pet..and I have lived in Korea since 1995, so I think I am stable enough to offer a good life to one.  Well– I finally came to a decision and adopted an animal from a shelter– a dog though, not a cat. (I decided that my fish would be too tempting for a cat).  I wanted to mention the Animal Rescue League Korea here because, if you are in Korea, they do have lots of adoption possibilities for dogs, cats and rabbits or, if you are in Korea just for a year or two, they offer fostering possibilities.  It is something to look into.

One Response to “Supernatural Cats in Korean Cinema”

  1. Seen in Jeonju » Blog Archive » The Cat (2011) Says:

    [...] by the coming of the horror film The Cat and it inspired the post where I looked at some of the feline ghosts in Korean cinema’s past. Then I read some reviews about the film and decided to skip it in the [...]