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Friday, January 6, 2023

‘Suddenly in the Dark’ – 1981 Cult Classic Is a Wonderful Introduction to Korean Horror

After South Korea’s film industry suffered under authoritarian rule throughout the 1970s, filmmakers in the following years were eager to make up for lost time. The enthusiasm for more creative storytelling and less censorship was writ large across early ‘80s movies like Suddenly in the Dark (also known as Suddenly at Midnight or Suddenly in Dark Night). This cult classic from director Ko Young-nam and screenwriter Yoon Sam-yook was a return to form for Korean cinema after a decade largely made up of artless propaganda films. And while the modern “K-horror” movement was years away at the time, its origins can be traced back to movies like Suddenly in the Dark.

Borrowing the setup of the Korean classic The Housemaid, Ko Young-nam’s one and only horror movie revolves around an increasingly paranoid housewife. In her middle-class surroundings, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae) starts to unravel when her overworked and neglectful husband, Yu-jin (Yun Il-bong), returns from his trip with a young woman in tow. The academic has brought with him the orphaned 19-year-old Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), who he found while hunting for butterflies. Seon-hee is at first delighted to have her own housemaid, but something about Mi-ok bothers her.

Prior to the arrival of Mi-ok, another of Yu-jin’s brief homecomings planted the seeds for Seon-hee’s irrational suspicion. Hiding among the husband’s slides of butterflies was a random photograph of an unusual doll. The same menacing figure then reappears as Mi-ok’s only belonging; the object, really a spirit tablet, was passed down to the housemaid from her late mother, a shamanic priestess. The doll’s sudden coming is no coincidence, and it also signals the movie’s supernatural slant.

suddenly in the dark

While Suddenly in the Dark looks to be a movie about an evil doll, the story is first and foremost a psychological study of its troubled main character. Seon-hee is miserable for a few reasons, but the most obvious has to do with her husband. There is almost a sense of humor about a man whose whole career is chasing after beautiful things in nature, but he absolutely disregards his own attractive life. There is nothing malicious about Yu-jin’s negligence; he’s quite kind toward his family. He even provides a housemaid for Seon-hee. Yet no amount of gentle gestures can make up for his lack of presence at home.

With a younger woman now living in her house, Seon-hee quickly suspects Mi-ok and Yu-jin are having an affair. The growing mistrust is more of a driving force than the supposedly threatening doll Mi-ok carries around. Yet in the startling bathroom scene on Mi-ok’s first day, it’s possible the matriarch is projecting her own feelings onto her husband. Seon-hee personally, and intimately, gets to know her employee by hand-washing her nude body. Mi-ok thinks nothing of sitting stark naked in front of her new boss, but the way Seon-hee objectifies the teenager is indicative of her own sexual obsession with Mi-ok. The lust Seon-hee accuses Yu-jin of, may very well be her own.

On a visual level, Suddenly in the Dark could be mistaken for a vintage giallo movie, specifically those from Dario Argento’s oeuvre. The extra attention to imagery is what accounts for most of this movie’s disquietude. The garish and busy décor — from the tacky red carpet to the numerous taxidermy mounts and intellectual bric-à-bracs — make the central setting feel uncomfortable. Plentiful dutch angles, kaleidoscopic visions and flashbacks, and the simple but effective shooting of scenes through a glass bottle all convey the protagonist’s worrisome state of mind. Jeong Pil-si’s cinematography undoubtedly helps the movie stand out in this period of Korean filmmaking.

suddenly in the dark

As a whole, Korean horror doesn’t delve into shamanism too often. The most known example would be the international hit The Wailing, but Suddenly in the Dark predates that movie by a good thirty-five years. This plunge into the fascinating subject matter isn’t as deep as it could have been; Mi-ok’s particularly unique background is crucial to the story, yet it still comes second to the horrors born from Seon-hee’s mind. Strangely enough, this movie is vague about what really took place, whereas more contemporary K-horrors are less concerned with ambiguity.

Suddenly in the Dark is a head-on collision between the old and new worlds of South Korea. Mi-ok, representing the past, is brought into a modern environment where she doesn’t belong, and where she’s no longer welcome after Seon-hee gets a look at her creepy and antiquated doll. And like an infection she so badly wants out of her body, Seon-hee does everything to push Mi-ok back outside and away from her comfortable, Western-style way of life. In light of the direction that Korean filmmaking was hoping to go after surviving Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, this movie’s themes are even more considerable.

Korean cinema prior to the renaissance, namely the late nineties and onward, isn’t widely discussed, much less known about. In recent years, though, there has been a significant push to learn about this era of filmmaking. It’s not the easiest of undertakings, seeing as movies from this age aren’t easy to come by. But if someone has a desire to see where K-horror began, there’s no better place to start than Suddenly in the Dark. This stylish and alluring blend of cerebral and folk horror is a wonderful introduction. 

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

suddenly in the dark

The post ‘Suddenly in the Dark’ – 1981 Cult Classic Is a Wonderful Introduction to Korean Horror appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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