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By Peter Y. Paik

Peter Paik is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. His articles on cinema have been in Religion and the Arts and on the Asian American Village @ IMDiversity.com.

The film opens on a bright, sunny day, with a medium close-up of a man standing outside a dilapidated apartment building. The man, however, has his back turned to us, and the film's title, Sorum, means "chills" or "gooseflesh," so from the outset we know not to expect the movie to take the conventional path to horror and suspense. By the end of the film we will be shocked and terrified, but less by overt scenes of gore or violence than by the mysteriousness of the human character itself. For Sorum is not just a movie about ghosts and killing - it is also a complex meditation on fate and free will, the seeds of authoritarianism, and the human capacity for violence.

The protagonist of the film is a taxi driver named Yong-hyung (Kim Myung-min). At the start of the film we see him moving into the broken-down Migum apartments, located in a desolate neighborhood of Seoul. The building is largely abandoned, with discarded clothing and broken toys cluttering its corridors and graffiti scrawled on its walls. There has been a recent death in the apartments and at least one murder, but its few remaining residents have their own reasons for staying on. Among them is a pianist named Eun-soo (Cho Ahn), who is in mourning for the death of her lover and sternly refuses to move on with her life. Her friend Sun-young (Chang Jin-young), who lives down the hall, is a convenience store clerk trapped in a hellish marriage with a brutish husband. Finally, there is the writer, Mr. Lee (Ki Ju-bong), who is working on a novel about a haunted apartment building and takes an interest in Yong-hyung, trying to befriend the latest arrival.

Yong-hyung finds himself drawn to Sun-young, offering her a ride home after work. Later that night, he overhears her screams as she gets into an ugly quarrel with her husband. Emerging in the hallway after the clamor has died down, Yong-hyung walks up to the rooftop to find Sun-young standing at the ledge, with tears in her eyes and fresh bruises on her face. The next day, Yong-hyung drives up to both Sun-young and Eun-soo on the street, and invites them out to a movie. After meeting at the theatre, Yong-hyung and Sun-young go on a drive out into the country, while the suspicious Eun-soo storms off by herself. Sitting on a riverbank, Sun-young tells him that his apartment was the site of a mysterious fire that took the life of Eun-soo's boyfriend, Kwang-tae, who was also a writer. One night, while going upstairs to his apartment, Yong-hyung turns around to see a dazed Sun-young behind him, her face swollen with bruises and fresh bloodstains on her sweatshirt. The brutal husband has died - accidently, claims the abused wife, and Yong-hyung soon finds himself involved with her both physically and morally, helping to dispose of the body and becoming her lover.

Amid the scenes of growing tension between its characters, the film quietly develops its central storyline of the haunting of the Migum building. At first the spirits seem to have to do with the guilt and yearnings felt by the various characters - a mother sits alone in a dark stairwell, watching (or imagining) with immeasurable sorrow a little boy scrawl an accusatory message on the wall; a young woman approaches a figure at the other end of the corridor who resembles her dead lover, until he turns around to face her. But Sorum reveals its underlying mystery one tantalizing detail at a time, and what is truly masterful about the film is its handling of point-of-view.

For our own lack of knowledge places us in the same position as Yong-hyung when it comes to deciphering the strange incidents of the past as well as the uncanny events of the present. We identify with him as the newcomer to the haunted house, as the one character who will seek and find the answers to the supernatural goings-on. Yet the film progressively undermines the security of this identification, as we come to realize how little we actually know about him and his past. The director and screen-writer Yoon Jong-chan disarms us by showing Yong-hyung's awkward, oddball Bruce Lee impressions when he is alone, so that we're less likely to question the significance of seemingly minor plot details - such as his relationship with an unfaithful girlfriend or why he is so attached to his pet hamster - until we're forced to by the final revelations of the film. Indeed, one might argue that Sorum performs a kind of inverse demonic possession on the audience, turning them into unsuspecting spirits who find that the body they're inhabiting is capable of being far crueler and much more vicious than they ever expected.

And yet the film also furnishes a plausible psycho-sociological explanation for why Yong-hyung becomes so easily unhinged - he is an orphan with an acquired inability to trust other people, especially women. But in fiction, as in life, psycho-sociological explanations are merely the first step to real understanding, and Sorum skillfully weaves this detail into its algebra of overpowering loss, with the son of absent parents becoming involved with a woman who is mourning the death of her own son. Yong-hyung and Sun-young in that sense seem as ready-made for each other as interlocking pieces in a puzzle, but the hands that are fitting these pieces into a whole move according to the compulsion of an unspeakable desire.

The film, however, is not without its light touches. When Eun-soo, spooked by her dreams, tells Sun-young about sensing the presence of ghosts, a slight smile cracks across the face of the battered woman, who then breaks out laughing. It's as though the married woman can't help but deride the idea of having problems with imaginary beings when she herself can expect a very real beating from her husband every night. Outbreaks of laughter interrupt other key exchanges in the film, as when Sun-young, in bed, tells Yong-hyung, that she feels she is going crazy, like her father did. The characters cut each other off before they might learn something crucial about one other, as their combustible fears, anxieties, and obsessions surface briefly like shark fins before the pandemonium of the feeding frenzy.

For the conflicts between the characters emerge not from distance and alienation but from a suffocating proximity. It is possible to argue that the commanding theme of Sorum is claustrophobia, but the film, in part through its remarkable restraint, spares us this sensation until the very end, and even then, its effect is primarily retrospective. While the story unfolds, there are hints of it in the misunderstandings that take hold between its characters. Rash accusations deepen the wounds of past traumas. Rhetorical questions are misheard as literal ones. Accumulated grievances find misdirected release, but the terrifying element in the film arises not only from the vicious circles of repetition compulsion but also from a kind of devouring maternal devotion that approves of anything - no matter how vicious or cold-blooded - from its object.

If the Freudian myth of the primal father who withheld sexual enjoyment from his sons speaks powerfully to a South Korea chafing under the authoritarian rule of the military dictators, Sorum highlights the decisive role played by the maternal in perpetuating a brutal patriarchy. The mother responds to her victimization at the hands of the sadistic father by embracing unconditionally a son who is capable of acting out the father's appalling trajectory. Indeed, it is a maternal presence that provides an ironic justification of a chilling monologue at the turning point of the film on how to lead a life "without worries." There are echoes of classical Greek tragedy in how Sorum exposes the most corrosive illusions spawned by the family romance, but to get more specific would spoil the suspense raised by its well-crafted plot.

Sorum is boosted by strong performances from its leads. Chang Jin-young is utterly convincing in her portrayal of a battered wife, conveying both vulnerability and grit. Her performance won her the Blue Dragon Award for best actress in 2001. Kim Hyung-min, on the other hand, excels in playing a character whose guilelessness might just be an act - he projects just the right amount of awkwardness for us to be in doubt until the end. The cast is rounded out by Cho Ahn, with her round, haunted eyes resigned to a life of mourning and seemingly ready to absorb yet another grief, and by Ki Ju-bong, whose roguish novelist is desperate for a bargain with darkness so that he can finish his book.

Director Yoon Jong-chan's first feature catapults him into the ranks of the East Asian directors who are revitalizing the horror genre. Like Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose superlative Cure is perhaps the most brilliant film ever made about serial killing, he moves fluidly from everyday violence to the dim, hallucinatory regions of the soul from which the pathologies themselves emerge. Sorum is a subtle and evocative film that demands multiple viewings - it is an experience that grows richer each time.

Sorum is available to purchase on DVD at HKFlix.com. Click here for information.