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Far East Extreme: An Extremely Belated Oscar Endorsement for Sorum!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 | Opinion


One of the more talked about films of late, a Korean movie called Parasite, capped off its great run last week with multiple wins at the Oscars. Unfortunately, it is not a horror movie about bloodthirsty alien chest-bursters. Today we will discuss another Korean film that won a bunch of awards about twenty years ago, and is also, nominally, a horror film. But does it hold up to our extreme levels of scrutiny?

Sorum is the full-length directorial debut of director Yoon Jong-chan and stars Kim Myung-min (of Detective K and Pandora fame) as Yong-hyun, a taxi driver looking to start a new life at his new digs, the dilapidated (and possibly haunted) Migum Apartments. Unfortunately, his apartment, room 504 has been the setting of countless tragedies, most recently the death of a young writer named Kwangtae who – accidentally or not – was lit on fire. Each of the other tenets has their own demons, whether it be their connections to Kwangtae, or other, darker secrets.

Though Yong-hyun is the protagonist of the story, he is hardly a “hero;” instead he is something of a misfit: an orphan scarred by years of hard living, and is especially hard-up after losing his job due to being scammed by his ex-girlfriend. Eager to get back into the game, he becomes interested in one of his neighbors, the disheveled, eccentric Sun-yeong (played by Jang Jin-young, a then up-and-coming young actress who went on to become a bona-fide star in Korean cinema before her untimely death in 2009). Jang’s performance, which included her smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day to look appropriately haggard, earned her numerous Korean awards as well as a win at Sitges Film Festival. It is the relationship between the two that moves the film forward, particularly after Sun-yeong’s abusive husband dies under mysterious circumstances. The problem is that for the first half-hour Sorum is simply a hard-edged drama film about impoverished and disaffected people. We get our horror soon after, however, and in the span of a few minutes we have a body-count, a bunch of blood, and even jumpscares- with appropriate music to boot! You see, there was another, even more significant crime many years before Kwangtae’s demise: a man who killed his wife and left his infant child for dead, who apparently also died in a fire. It is said the ghost of the woman still haunts Migum: lights switch on and off, objects go flying around the rooms, and sometimes you can even hear a ghostly voice whispering a haunting lullaby.

“Jang’s performance, which included her smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day to look appropriately haggard, earned her numerous Korean awards as well as a win at Sitges Film Festival.”

Sorum never fully delves into supernatural territory, thankfully, and instead focuses more on the living. Yong-hyun befriends a writer named Lee, who knows all about the history of Migum, and is planning on using these stories to make his literary comeback. Kwangtae’s girlfriend, who is coincidentally also friend of Sun-yeong, also makes an appearance. Here is where we get to one of the most notable issues this movie has: too many coincidences. I remember hearing in college writing classes that good stories are only allowed one honest-to-goodness coincidence; more than that, and people can start to see the author pulling the strings. In Sorum, characters always seem to bump into each other at the best/worst of times, just in time to learn someone’s deep dark secret, or in order to hear even more exposition and urban legends! Indeed, there are very few occasions where a single character is completely alone. There might be something to this though: Sorum is slow and plodding enough as it is, and expediency can be a blessing in a horror movie.  

Did I mention that the film began to resemble horror? Soon after, it stops again; instead we get the low-down on Yong-hyun and Sun Yeong’s burgeoning love life. The only (and I mean only) reason for horror fans to not switch channels at this point is because this pair honestly does have great chemistry together: it’s really not that romantic, neither one is well-spoken enough to belt out some flowery romantic soliloquy; hell, sometimes they just sit around and hardly say anything to each other! But it still works. They don’t respond to each other, or situations, like you’d expect, and neither one is that likable: Yong-hyun is a bit of a creep and bossy to boot, while Sun-yeong ends up being rather self-serving and has something of a callous streak, but they’re great together! This helps move the film through a bunch of pointless subplots: Lee’s aforementioned book quest, Kwangtae’s former squeeze pointlessly showing up over and over again, even the hen-pecked old landlord and a bunch of exposition and overlong shower scenes. Now, mind you, this movie has a lot going for it: nice moody direction with slow camera pans, dead-on acting, and a great creepy building filled with garbage and old children’s toys, but the pacing is god-awful. Imagine a slow, moody, romantic drama film with jumpscares and blood, only these themes are then put aside and the film becomes a mystery. How did Kwangtae die? Who really cares? The real mystery is why the film jumps back and forth so much and then chucks the mystery out the window entirely, leaving an already anemic subplot without resolution. Add to this the attempts at levity: Yong-hyun’s obsession with Bruce Lee becomes weird and annoying more than humorous, and serves to just pad out the film’s already robust two hour runtime.

Now, to get back to the original question: is this award-winning horror film worth seeing? Absolutely. You see, despite how many problems this film has, Sorum is a good horror film because it is: A) well-acted and directed and B) Creepy. When Sorum actually decides to be scary, it does so effectively. There are only two or three edge-of-your-seat moments in the film, but they all stand out. There isn’t much blood, but it looks good when you see it. And, most importantly, despite the unevenness of the first and second acts, the ending is near-perfect. Though the plot twist regarding Yong-hyun is very predictable, it is used to disguise another twist that I did not see coming. Things also end on a satisfyingly vague note; lest we forget very few horror movies have happy endings, but neither is the ending completely miserable either. I’ve criticized Korean horror movies before for lacking subtly, and though this film contains instances of those same bad habits, it also has enough self-awareness to use honest-to-goodness atmosphere, not cringeworthy dialogue, shaky cams, or overdone ending twists, to try to elevate its most poignant moments. This film has been criticized by many for being slow and boring, but if you give it a chance you may find something rather unique and worth your time.

(Writers note: The Japanese title for the film, “Torihada,” is also the name of a separate film franchise. The two have nothing in common.)

Alex Ehrenreich
I'm a writer and horror-lover currently living in Tokyo. Be sure to check out my column "Far-East Extreme" where I write about the best in Asian horror cinema every month.