Though still identifiably K-horror in feel and in its social themes, “Possessed” plays withthe genre in a refreshing way. Low-key drama of a young woman trying to solve the disappearance of her younger sister, who appears to have been taken over by dark forces, surprisingly showed up at no summer or fall fests, and tanked locally in August despite positive reviews. A natural for fantasy events, this has offshore cable and ancillary potential, despite its no-name cast and modest production values.
Pic notably avoids almost every embedded cliche of Korean horror, such as girls’ school settings and demonic gazes through long hair. Though it has some well-judged shocks, especially one in the second reel, it doesn’t rely on either moody lensing or outre violence for effect.
Frosh writer-director Lee Yong-ju was an assistant director on Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder,” and there’s some of the same feeling of quotidian horror in “Possessed.” A closer European parallel would be Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem,” which also didn’t provide neat answers, qualifying more as drama than genre exercise.
The movie’s freshness partly stems from its mingling of evangelical Christianity, shamanism and even atheism, and the way it shows how these beliefs (or non-beliefs) become blurred when confronted with the same problem. The pic works especially well in its South Korean setting, as evangelical Christianity is particularly strong there.
Nam Sang-mi, previously just a pretty support in comedies like “Spy Girl” and “She’s on Duty,” is considerably deglammed as Kang Heui-jin, who’s suddenly called by her mother (Kim Bo-yeon) with the news that her 13-year-old sister, So-jin (Shim Eun-gyeong), has vanished. Mom, who thinks hell is just around the corner for nonbelievers like Heui-jin, is half-coherent at best, so Heui-jin, still weak from a fever she can’t shake, visits the family apartment (bedecked with crosses) to help out.
While there, she’s visited by a gruff cop, Tae-hwan (Ryu Seung-ryong), who tries to shrug off the case until Heui-jin rails at his uselessness. As the two question others on the block — including a shaman (Mun Heui-gyeong) and a nutty security guard (Lee Chang-jin) — a weird community of differing persuasions is revealed, as well as a backstory involving multiple deaths, starting with So-jin’s friend, Jeong-mi (Oh Ji-eun).
The mystery of So-jin’s disappearance becomes less important than the clashes of faith as the pic progresses, with everyone having taken advantage of So-jin for their own ends. As Heui-jin becomes progressively more spooked out, the cop comes to rep the voice of practicality and reason, though even he is prone to superstition.
Lee’s script is a bit fuzzy at the edges and tends to throw ideas at the viewer rather than mold them into a dramatic unity. The finale doesn’t have quite the power it should, as it essentially repeats ideas already spelled out earlier, but overall, the film has a moody, slow-burning quality that’s involving.
For a movie more about Heui-jin than her absent sister, Nam is almost too subdued, though she and Ryu have an effective chemistry. Shim, seen in flashbacks, is very good as a rag doll tossed around by her mother’s madness.
Atmospheric score — more a collection of sounds than regular music — is a big help in maintaining mood. Other credits are modest but do the job. Original Korean title means “The Hell of Non-Believers”; the pic was also known earlier as “Living Death.”