Auds seeking thrilling images and a chilled spine will find the largely hospital-set K-horror item “Epitaph” just what the doctor ordered. But those who like their effects grounded in anything more solid will be disappointed by the Jeong Brothers’ debut, a grab bag of decent but underdeveloped ideas into which the writing-directing duo have thrown all their personal and filmic obsessions. Tech wizardry keeps the result enjoyable enough but unfocused until the last third, when the plotlines start to unravel. Prospects look good throughout Asia, with pickups from Western genre distribs a possibility.
The 1979-set prologue features aging doctor Park Jung-Nam (Jeon Mu-song) being delivered a photo album from the soon-to-be-demolished hospital where he learned his craft. Pic then flashes back to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1942. In the first of three occasionally interwoven stories, the doctor, now an insecure intern (Jin Goo) who would rather be an artist, is instructed to work in the autopsy room. A beautiful dead girl (Yeoji) is brought in, with whom the lonely doctor falls in love — before he’s physically sucked into the alcove where her body is at rest.
In the second story, young Asako (Ko Joo-Yeon) is brought to the hospital following a car crash that has killed her mother (Zia) and stepfather (David McInnis), leaving her her physically unwounded but traumatized. It’s a terrific horror idea, worthy of full-length feature treatment, but handled superficially here. Asako is placed in the care of psychiatrist Lee Soo-In (Lee Dong-Kyu), who tries to deal with the girl’s authentically creepy visions of her dead mother. (In Korean horror, ghosts can never be far behind.)
Third yarn, pic’s weakest, has surgeon Kim In-Young (Kim Bo-Kyung) performing an autopsy on a dead Japanese soldier. The surgeon is happily married to fellow practitioner Kim Dong-Won (Kim Tae-Woo), but her work piles up and she becomes more and more tired, until her husband observes that she no longer has a shadow.
Characterization goes well beyond the requirements of much horror fare, and the pic has an appealing lack of bombast The aim, often perfectly executed, is to fuse the lyrical and the horrific. At times, however, the use of the supernatural is merely silly.
Tech credits are tops, with atmospheric sound design particularly effective. Score, sometimes evocative, is elsewhere overly derivative, whether using over-the-top strings for the more emotional passages or ripping off Bernard Herrmann’s choppy “Pscyho” violins. Lensing, too, sometimes reprises images familiar from other pics, though the decision to imbue certain scenes with a faded old-photo hue works fine.
Otherwise, pic is eye-candy, all the more so for its restrained aesthetic — the beautifully atmospheric Gothic hospital, with its subdued wooden tones and labyrinthine corridors, reps a triumph for production designers Lee Min-Bok and Kim Yu-Jeong, as does the loving attention to the detail in the medical equipment used.