TLA Releasing
Jung Brothers / South Korea 2007

Since its release last year Epitaph, directed by newcomers the Jung Brothers, has screened at several film festivals and been heralded by critics as the best Korean horror film since the 2003 masterpiece A Tale of Two Sisters. If the latter is true it surely says more about the floundering state of Asian horror than about the quality of Epitaph, an overly-contrived and confusing anthology film revived only by its gorgeous aesthetic sensibilities.

An anthology format will always be a risky undertaking because the film will only be as strong as it’s weakest link. Epitaph manages to strike a nice balance in the tones of its three stories, each dealing with the fragility of love and life in chaotic times. The framing story begins in 1979, with an old doctor reminiscing about his tenure as a medical student at Ahn Seng Hospital during the Japanese occupation in 1942. Student Jung Nam is arranged to be married to the daughter of the hospital’s director, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a child. In the weeks before the wedding, he’s assigned to overnight morgue duty and falls in love with the frozen corpse of a beautiful girl. As Jung Nam lavishes attention on the girl, talking to her, drawing her picture, she begins to thaw and tries to return the favor.

At the same time, in the strongest tale, a little girl, Asako, is admitted to the hospital covered in blood from the car accident that has killed her mother and stepfather. Her doctor, Soo In, discovers that Asako has miraculously escaped the wreckage without physical injury, but she is constantly besieged with violent visions of her parents. Finally, married doctors Young and Dong Won investigate the murder of a Japanese soldier, which matches the modus operandi of a suspected serial killer. Dong Won becomes concerned that his wife is working too hard on this case when he notices that she is no longer casts a shadow.

This synopsis no doubt makes the film sound more coherent than it actually is since the timelines and characters of the stories overlap in a way that makes it impossible to make sense of the events. It has become an annoyingly predictable part of recent Korean horror films for the plot to start unraveling somewhere in the second act, then completely give way to a series of barely connected images, ridiculous plot twists (enough already with the unreliable narrators!) and pretentious attempts at tackling complex human issues. But since it offers no scary moments that would surprise even a casual fan of the genre, it is the sheer quality of the spectacle that makes Epitaph compelling. The Jung Brothers frame up compositions worthy of still images or ancient portraiture. The gleaming, polished wood of Ang Seng Hospital, beautiful period details and elaborate presentational set pieces are hopefully enough eye candy to distract the viewer from the otherwise dull and muddled stories.

Besides the expert cinematography, performances are strong throughout, particularly in the second segment, and none of the tales feel thematically out of place. With Epitaph, the Jung Brothers have proven themselves to be imaginative and skillful directors and considerably less successful screenwriters. If style over substance is the best that Korean horror has to offer perhaps “epitaph” is an apt description of its place in the genre.

© 2008 Robyn Citizen. All rights reserved.

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