Visually at the upper end of the K-horror spectrum, and scare-wise ranking about the middle, Vietnam-set “Muoi” boosts formulaic ingredients with classy packaging and sturdy work by lead thesps Jo An and Cha Ye-ryeon. Capable helmer Kim Tae-kyung’s spooky tale about a writer getting more than she bargained for on a research trip marks the first-ever South Korea-Vietnam co-production. Results are encouraging enough to suggest there’s a lucrative V-horror category just waiting to be born. Pic failed to ignite at the Korean B.O. in August against local behemoth “D-War,” but should still find plenty of offshore ancillary action.
Whether or not the pic can spark genre activity in Vietnam is in the hands of the country’s censorship officials. Though widely available on pirated DVDs, “Muoi” has yet to be given the nod for release by authorities, known for their reluctance to approve films with supernatural themes.
Brief opening section in South Korea finds serious young author Yun-hee (Jo An) struggling to get the words flowing three years after her first novel was published. Things look up when Seo-yeon (Cha Ye-ryeon), an old friend now living in Vietnam, invites her to visit and investigate the legend of Muoi (Ahn Thu), a tragic young woman whose spirit is said to haunt the town of Dalat.
Staying at one of the beautiful villas built for French colonial elites, Yun-hee discovers it’s almost 100 years to the day since the beautiful Muoi died an agonizing death following love-triangle dramas. It also becomes clear that Seo-yeon is somehow hooked into the whole creepy business, and has a personal beef from the past with Yun-hee.
Though narrative progress is fairly mechanical, the pic does not lack intriguing elements. Flashbacks to Muoi’s affair with a handsome painter, the involvement of monks as protectors of the curse – and a scary old woman who pops in and out of the proceedings – all help maintain interest where big shocks are not forthcoming.
Last seen goofing around in ditzy comedy “Operation Makeover,” Jo An steps up a level here with a focused, mature perf as the frightened writer. Dynamic between the central duo sparks, with Cha firing as the smiling friend with an axe to grind. Local actors in smaller roles are all fine.
Though sometimes too obviously derivative – the peeling wallpaper of “Barton Fink,” the reel-to-reel tape recorder with curse information from “The Evil Dead” – the pic moves swiftly and looks great. Lovely exteriors around the picturesque town of Dalat won’t do the tourist biz any harm.
Ultra-smooth widescreen lensing and moody lighting by Park Jaehong supply eye-pleasing gloss. Effects are sparingly used and convincing when called for. Music is subtly applied and contributes nicely to the menacing mood. All other tech credits are spot-on.