Lee Yong-ju’s elegantly stylish horror film “Possessed” for the most part hews closely to the familiar aesthetics of his chosen genre: Asian horror. The creepiness on display is enhanced by Lee’s beautiful sense of composition, and instinct for atmosphere and pacing, that make “Possessed” a superior example of the genre.
And it’s not just that which separates this film from many other more mundane examples; Lee takes on the controversial subject of religion and makes it the driving force of his narrative. “Possessed” deals with two very different religious traditions, Christianity and Korean shamanism, the fervor for which looks here to be not all that different from psychosis. Lee’s film performed rather poorly at the box office when it was released in Korea last summer; it may be that despite the fantastical nature of the proceedings, much in the film may have hit a little too close to home for the comfort of many viewers.
We first encounter the film’s protagonist Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi) battling a wicked cold in Seoul, where she attends college, and where she has gone to flee the evangelical fervor of her mother (Kim Bo-yeon). Hee-jin has also, much more reluctantly, left behind her younger sister So-jin (Shim Eun-kyung), who survived a car accident that killed their father and left So-jin physically and psychologically scarred. Hee-jin is forced to return when after receiving a call from her sister in the middle of the night, she is awoken by her mother telling her that So-jin has gone missing. Against her mother’s strenuous objections, Hee-jin seeks the assistance of detective Tae-hwan (Ryu Seung-ryong) in finding her sister. Everyone is quickly drawn into the ornately freakish occurrences surrounding So-jin’s appearance, involving suspicious suicides and frequent flashbacks detailing supernatural events that happened while Hee-jin was away. So-jin herself may either have mysterious healing powers or be possessed by an evil spirit.
Buried within the shocks and frights of “Possessed” is Lee’s provocative critique of both Korean-style Christian evangelism and the opportunistic misuse of more ancient traditions. This, along with Lee’s mastery of atmosphere and vivid storytelling (tricks of the trade he no doubt got great training in as Bong Joon-ho’s assistant director on “Memories of Murder”), allows “Possessed” to rise far above the genre elements that Lee both fulfills and transcends. The committed performances of his cast, most notably Nam Sang-mi, also contribute greatly to the film’s success in bringing the scares with a refreshing lack of cliché.