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Horror Highlights from South Korea’s 16th Jeonju International Film Festival

South Korea’s film festival season kicks off in earnest each year with the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) in May. Though much lighter in fright fare than the country’s other major film festivals, JIFF does offer a handful of options, usually programmed during its Midnight in Cinema all-nighter triple-bill series. For the fest’s 16th year, filmgoers were treated to several nightmarish situations, including quite literal ones, in one case.

The most brutal horror film that I saw at this year’s JIFF was debuting writer/director Aik Karepetian’s home invasion/slasher hybrid The Man in the Orange Jacket, which is also rich with psychological shocker and art-film concepts. It is well worth your time to keep an eye out for this alleged first Latvian horror movie.

“The Man in the Orange Jacket”

A wealthy industrialist (Aris Roentals) is shutting down the harbor that he owns and more than 200 employees are suddenly out of work. The industrialist and his wife (Anta Aizupe) hope to avoid backlash and unwanted media attention by holing up in their palatial mansion before beginning a vacation the next morning; however, a man (Maxim Lazarev) dressed in a harbor worker’s uniform, including the titular orange jacket, has other ideas, and walks through the woods to their home carrying a box of tools. He breaks in and uses the tools in ways that are not included in the owners’ manuals. Rather than quickly leaving the crime scene, he stays in the house and begins to enjoy the fruits of how the other half lives. He indulges in fine foods, designer clothing, and look-alike call girls. Almost every positive in life has a negative side, though, and soon the man finds that his sense of reality is becoming more and more nebulous, and that he himself is seemingly being stalked.

The Man in the Orange Jacket occasionally reminded me of Roman Polanski’s apartment house trilogy, especially Repulsion and The Tenant, with their sense of increasing paranoia in seemingly ordinary living quarters, Viewers should enjoy spotting Karapetian’s subtle nods to other iconic horror films and directors, as well. I won’t spoil all the fun in this review.

The cinematography and sound design are both captivating. The dialogue is minimal, but the unsettling kills and bloodshed are anything but. The film has a lean running time of about 71 minutes, and seemed to me to end rather abruptly. Whether viewers are in the mood for considering symbolism about class struggles or simply looking for a brutal shocker filled with psychosis and paranoia, The Man in the Orange Jacket should satisfy on multiple levels. Karapetian has made an impressive first effort and should have a bright future ahead.

Another auteur making his full-length debut this year is Yannis Veslemes with his vampire offering Norway. The Greek helmer does an impressive job of creating a unique visual style on an obviously limited budget.

“Norway”

The story takes place in 1984, and concerns a disco-dancing-addicted vampire named Zano (Vangelis Mourikis) who travels to Athens on a night train as the film opens. Viewers can instantly get an idea of some of the visual play ahead as Veslemes uses a model train to show this journey. Zano searches for a friend who has made arrangements for him, including such creature comforts as a guest coffin at Cafe Zardoz — one of many cinematic references sprinkled liberally throughout the movie — where he can dance the night away while drinking copious amounts of alcohol and blood. He meets several creatures of the night of both the vampiric and human type, including hookers and drug addicts. One character walks both sides of the fence: a vampire who hasn’t had a drink of blood in 10 years because he instead became addicted to heroin.

Zano eventually runs into lady of the night Alice (Alexia Kaltsiki) and her friend, Norwegian drug dealer Peter (Daniel Bolda). After a somewhat awkward start, the trio bonds together in an unlikely alliance and travels through alleys, streets, and then the woods on a mission about which Alice seems quite vague. The three eventually find themselves at an underground lair where Zano is menaced for his gift of eternal life.

Although Norway is not a horror comedy, it does offer a several humorous moments. If you’re a fan of neck-biting and bloodletting in your vampire films, there is a fair amount here, though “the red stuff” is not limited to one color in Veslemes’ stylized world of neon and shadow, with its feet and heart firmly rooted in eighties music videos and that decades’ mainstream and underground genre film classics, such as The Hunger and Liquid Sky. The cast performs well, especially Mourikis, who brings a charming, roguish quality to Zano.

Similar to my feelings about The Man in the Orange Jacket, Norway finished just as I thought it was really hitting its stride. After several interesting things occur during the third act, the 73-minute film ends suddenly. I wanted to see a bit more, though, in the long run, I’m sure that we will see more from Veslemes, who has made an impressive, evocative debut.

Although not outright horror films, I  would like to recommend a couple of interesting films that have horror elements. The noirish South Korean psychothriller Trap suffers from a weak beginning in which a good deal happens that has little to nothing to do with the rest of the story, but thankfully things tighten up quickly. Screenwriter JeongMin (HaJun Yu) is tired of directors stealing all the attention and decides to take a break from the everyday grind in Seoul to work on his new script at a tiny, secluded mountain guest lodge. To call the establishment rustic is being kind. The owner is a gruff, unfriendly mute (YongGyu Kang) who is assisted by a sometimes vampish, sometimes cold high school student named YuMi (JeIn Han in a superb performance). Screenwriters Changyeol Lee and Mandae Bong never reveal exactly how these two characters are related, which comes into uncomfortable play during the second act. Bong also directed Trap; the 2006 plastic surgery horror film Cinderella is one of his earlier efforts.

“Trap”

JeongMin becomes increasingly obsessed with YuMi. He peeps in on her through a hole in a snow-covered roof while she takes a bath and tries to time her arrivals and departures to get closer to her. YuMi expertly plays with his mind in a  Lolita-meets-Poison Ivy manner to the point where he cannot distinguish between fantasy and  reality, including whether or not sexual liaisons between them actually occurred or are merely the product of vivid dreams. The characters eventually find themselves in a stew of classic film noir with horror twists. Viewers who make it through the clunky top of the first act will be rewarded as Lee and Bong get the proceedings going at a steady pace and infuse their story with a smattering of dark humor.

“Trap”

I’d like to give my highest recommendations to The Forbidden Room, the latest eccentric offering from Canadian avant garde filmmaker Guy Maddin, co-directed by his recent collaborator Evan Johnson. Maddin has a unique style that calls on silent-era and early talkie movies, and his recurring motifs include arcana, the supernatural, Forteana, and explorations of the subconscious. Watching his films often feels like observing someone’s fever dreams, and The Forbidden Room is perhaps his most ambitious effort yet, and may at the same time be — admittedly quite arguably — his most accessible. It’s impossible to give a brief plot description, and I advise against searching for spoilers that go into great detail, but a few things in store for viewers who take this surreal, nonlinear ride include skeleton women, a brain the size of an island, volcano sacrifices, vampire bananas, sapling jacks (men in training to be lumberjacks) who battle cave dwellers, squid theft, Udo Kier as a man who seeks a lobotomy to curb his fondness for pinching derrieres, and a doomed submarine crew who draw oxygen from pancakes. The cinematography is hauntingly gorgeous, and the humor and storytelling are the very definition of offbeat.

“The Forbidden Room”

Maddin’s body of work is decidedly an acquired taste. Even if you are intimately familiar with the visual elements and styles from which he draws, you’ve never seen anything quite like his films before. If you are unfamiliar with his oeuvre, The Forbidden Room is an excellent place to start, and cinephiles should have a lot of wry fun with this offering. If you’re curious about Maddin’s style while waiting for his latest film to head to an art house or film festival your way, and want to stick to his works that include horror or supernatural elements, check out his 2012 ghosts and gangsters film, Keyhole, or his 2003 ballet version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. You can also find several provocative teaser trailers from The Forbidden Room , one of my favorite films of 2015, at Maddin’s Vimeo page, https://vimeo.com/user4895266.

“The Forbidden Room”

Some other horror films were screened at JIFF that have already been reviewed here on horrornews.net, including A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (unfortunately the English subtitles were canceled at the last moment) and horror documentary auteur Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare. Unfriended has also already been reviewed on this site, but I would like to report about some unusual circumstances regarding its Korean debut at JIFF and its subsequent run in South Korea.

I’ve seen at least 200 horror films here in Korea at festivals, and at repertory, indie, and chain cinemas, and these fright flicks have ranged from light to extreme in their depictions of horrific imagery, but I have never before witnessed here what I saw with Unfriended: each of the (relatively tame) death scenes were digitally blurred, sometimes so much that, for example, viewers couldn’t get even a general idea of what was in Jess’s mouth in the “Looks like she finally STFU” shot.

“Unfriended”

My friends who attended the JIFF screening with me were puzzled, too, and it turns out this was not the only censoring done to the film. One of these friends, an American film producer based in Seoul, did some asking around and learned that showing suicides on screen is evidently banned in Korea, which, according to the World Health Organization, has the third-highest suicide rate by country. This censorship explains the digital distortion. What I found out later, after reading details about Unfriended’s deaths online and double-checking a few things with Horror News Radio host Doc Rotten, is that the shots of the characters’ deaths were seemingly excised by Korean censors, as well. That is, viewers here saw only what led up to each death or the aftermaths, not the actual acts. For example, the last viewers saw of the character Ken was a digitally blurred shot of him with his arm in a blender. What happened to him after that was not shown in the censored version that I saw.

JIFF is inconsistent from year to year with the quality and amount of genre fare that it shows — its main focus is on indie dramas from around the world — but there are usually enough interesting films to warrant a weekend trip. Here’s hoping next year boasts one of the festival’s stronger line-ups.

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