Review: ‘The Priests’ a good 1st stab at exorcism

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Exorcism has long been a nonexistent theme in the Korean film scene.

While the popularity of the horror genre itself is at stake in Korea, no brave filmmakers have dared to attempt the occult genre, which has long been the territory of Western films.

However, now an ambitious Korean-made occult film is throwing down the gauntlet to start a new trend.

Jang Jae-hyun’s “The Priests,” which opened nationwide on Thursday, broaches the taboo subject, confidently featuring A-list actors – Kim Yun-seok and Gang Dong-won – at the forefront.

Initiated from Jang’s 26-minute piece “12th Assistant Deacon” (2014), which swept a number of short film awards in Korea including Jeonju International Film Festival and Mise-en-scene Short Film Festival, “The Priests” is known to be the first-ever commercial film in Korea to center on exorcism.

Despite its unprecedented nature, this relatively short 108-minute film is not a complete disappointment.

However, it is not a complete success either.

The final 30-minute-or-so scene, showing Kim and Gang conducting an exorcism on a demon-possessed girl (played by up-and-coming actress Park So-dam), is almost flawless.

It is fast-paced, urgent, very bizarre and grotesque, all at the same time.

Also, by showing a ritual of gut, an oriental version of exorcism that involves shamans dancing and singing to expel the devil, in a small attic in a back alley of the bustling Myeong-dong neighborhood of Seoul, the film definitely distinguishes itself from other Western occult films, namely “The Exorcist.”

Gang convincingly recites the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, as well as communicating with the demon in Chinese and English.

However, the detail and intensity of the overall plot wasn’t as satisfying.

The story kicks off by showing Father Kim (Kim), who is an outcast due to his dogmatic behavior, looking for a fellow priest who can help him expel the powerful demon possessing a high school girl who used to be his faithful disciple.

He picks Choi (Gang), a student at the theological school, to be his helper.

Choi accepts the offer after receiving a special request from the school’s dean to keep an eye on Kim’s behavior, for there have been rumors that he is doing inappropriate things to the possessed girl.

So as one might expect, the hot-tempered Kim and suspicious Choi don’t click well in the beginning. The tension rises especially when Kim brings up Choi’s childhood trauma of losing his little sister in a dog attack.

While preparing for the final exorcism ritual, Choi repeatedly has to confront his longtime fear of dogs, perhaps set up by the demonic spirits.

Not only is the device of using childhood trauma all too cliche, but the part showing Choi suddenly overcoming his fear and saving the teenage girl lacks support as well.

It seems like there should be a scene or two showing Kim helping Choi get over the trauma, leading them to re-address their relationship and commit to saving the girl.

Instead, the director sprinted to the final climax scene, leaving out all the necessary details. And again, although the climax is truly intense, it finishes all too suddenly.

Even after the exorcism ritual, the director hints at a number of other hurdles that will come along before they are able to completely get rid of the demon.

But while the interesting developments are brought up, they don’t seem to go anywhere afterward.

The shortcomings may have been a natural outcome considering the director’s experience of having done only short films, which usually rely on one big climax and then a hasty ending.

However, for a feature-length movie, the film lacked that last kicker.

Along with the nationwide release in 2-D format on Thursday, the film was also released in Screen X format, in which the film is projected across three walls for a 270-degree picture.

“The Priests” is the first film to be shot using Screen X cameras from the production stage.

BY JIN EUN-SOO [jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr]

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