(Movie Review) Unearthing traumatic history, ‘Exhuma’ goes off track midway through

For those who highly anticipate Jang Jae-hyun's new paranormal thriller will be yet another of the director's occult gems, "Exhuma" might not measure up to their expectations. The film takes on the ambitious task of blending supernatural circumstances, shamanistic rituals and tradition with the heavy subject of the country's traumatic past. And the end result arrives at the expense of genre characteristics and psychological tension, with a sudden release of steam at the very moment when the pressure should reach its peak. It follows the mysterious, chilling task of two shamans (Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun), a feng shui expert (Choi Min-sik) and a mortician (Yoo Hae-jin) who team up to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious events plaguing a wealthy U.S.-based family, by exhuming its ancestor's grave in a remote Korean village. The team of the four professionals carefully -- and fearfully -- begins to dig up the grave on a nondescript mountain. Upon examining the graveyard, the feng shui master Sang-de ok declares the coffin lies "in the vilest of plots." A "gut" is performed simultaneously to appease a wondering evil spirit that might be lurking inside the coffin. The patriarchal head of the family who commissioned the exhumation suspiciously asks them not to open the coffin and just cremate it, out of step with tradition and in violation of relevant laws. The cremation is, however, unexpectedly postponed due to inclement weather. After the coffin is moved to a nearby mortuary, "something extremely vicious" escapes from it. Up until the middle of the 134-minute running time, the flick builds up tension surrounding an invisible force, amid anticipations that terrible things soon start to unfold. It grips the audience with immersive storytelling based on Korean traditions and excellent ensemble acting. Veteran actor Choi Min-sik sympathetically portrays the fearful geomancer who knows what they are in for. Nevertheless, he continues to do the job to adhere to his work ethics. Kim Go-eun seamlessly transfo rms herself into a young shaman who performs the "gut," brandishing a sharp knife and holding one in her mouth to chase away family demons. But the tension suddenly seems to de-escalate, with the revelation of the malicious force at the center of the film's mystery. The ensuing narrative goes to great lengths to make the audience understand, leaving no room for imagination. The movie is the screen writer-director's first occult in five years since "Svaha: The Sixth Finger" (2019). His new work was shown in this year's Berlin Film Festival Forum section that introduces avant-garde and experimental films that "test the boundaries of convention and open up fresh perspectives to help grasp cinema." In "Exhuma," the director tries a unique take on the occult genre with the addition of a zombie-like creature that is of symbolic importance in a historical context. It remains, however, anyone's guess as to how compellingly he brings his message home. The film hit local theaters Thursday.