The past…several episodes have had storylines featuring kids and kids in danger and…well, here is another movie. I am not sure if this supernatural film is spooky enough to watch Halloween, but it may be creepy enough to ruin your day.
It is late at night and Kang Jung-won is napping on the train. He semi-wakes up around the time a woman places one of her young daughters in the seat next to him, but then dozes off again. In fact, he is still asleep when the train reaches the final station and wakes up just in time to run to the platform.
But then Jung-won turns around and sees the two girls still asleep in the train. Where is their mother? The doors start to close and he does not even try to do anything. Well…sucks for them. Not his responsibility.
Jung-won manages to make it to his apartment, only to find that the front door open and some strange noise coming from the inside. Not to worry, though. It is just his fiancée, Hee-eun, doing some work on some ceiling lights. Of course, it is he who startles her, she says that she thought that he was a ghost.
After some back-and-forth about Jung-won’s shoddy umbrella, Hee-eun asks him about his drinking. He mentions having gone drinking with his friend Jung-woo, and Hee-eun gets annoyed as she dislikes Jung-woo’s constant complaining about marriage and kids, particularly as their own wedding is coming up soon. But, it’s all good. She takes his shoddy umbrella and leaves.
Jung-won looks like the lighting job over the dining table, where it appears that the individual seats (and, thus, people) get all of the light. He has a flashback to when she explained that the family table is not simply for eating, but for sitting and talking, as if each person is an actor on stage. Uh oh…is this movie going to turn really pretentious? Well, title drop.
It is the morning and a custodian encounters one of the girls while sweeping up the train. Oh, shit. We don’t see what they look like, but it is obvious that the girls are dead.
Jung-won is at his workplace, overseeing some interior renovations of a building when he hears the report on the radio of the two girls being found dead with no obvious cause. He gets called into to observe a guy drilling a hole through the ceiling to try to find a power line when a bunch of stuff falls from the ceiling on his face. Should have worn protective gear.
He gets seven stitches above his eye, though it is apparently not quite enough, as Jung-won gets a little bit of blood on one of his architectural plans at home. He then…uh…
What the hell?
I guess that Jung-won drove to his workplace in the middle of the night to sleep there, and is still there when the others come in. One of them, Chang-hyun, asks why he is here instead of recovering from his injury. Also, it seems that the building is a structural mess and they still have not found the power line.
Somehow, Jung-won manages to intuit that they should open up a specific vent. Oh…well, there is the power line. And here is Hee-eun out of nowhere, asking why he hadn’t picked up his phone and more suspicious than worried about his scar. Chang-hyun says that Jung-won looks better on the outside than he probably is inside, and the three of them laugh. Hee-eun wants to have dinner at Jung-won’s place again, as she has something to celebrate, but he had plans to stay with his father in Ilsan, a town north or Seoul. Apparently, he had not told her about that. What is there to celebrate anyways? Apparently, Hee-eun has scored a project at a hotel. She had tried calling him all morning, but he was not picking up, so here she is to tell him. She has to hurry over there now and orders Chang-hyun to prevent Jung-won from working. So, Chang-hyun lets him read a newspaper…and the main headline is, of course, the two dead girls in the train. Oh…dang. He must not have really heard the radio report and this is the first that he is learning of it.
Jung-won is at his father’s place. Well, first he stops at the church to…uh…doze off, but then he goes to eat with his father and sister. And…apparently, he had arrived late at night, which was not part of the plan. They talk about his injury and the church construction and members coming from far away.
Jung-won dreams that he is back on the train. He is about to leave when he steps on one of two breadcrumb trails leading to where the two girls are sitting asleep across from each other on the far side of the otherwise empty train car. He runs over to them and tries to shake them awake. Then he turns back to see them also on the other end of the train car, but badly burnt. When the platform doors close and the train starts to leave the station, he opens up the door to the next train car only to see the two girls standing on the other side. It is probably about that time that he screams himself awake. I guess that the tale of two sisters was not to his liking.
Jung-won goes to a mental health clinic to get some professional help from a just kidding. For the sake of privacy, the therapist wants him to design a second door to his office so that a patient who leaves late does not encounter a patient who arrives early. For example, Jung-won himself saw the previous patient, who is still in the waiting room waiting for her medicine. The therapist shows him a possible path through what could be the pharmacy to an exit to the hallway, though Jung-won sees the woman out there taking her pills while she walks off. So…maybe this project will work, but maybe not.
Jung-won has stopped in traffic and sees that woman waiting at a bus stop. Oh, and she faints. She should have waited until she got home to take her medicine as the pharmacist said. The people around her try to help her, but Jung-won has to drive away or face the wrath of the drivers behind him.
Hee-eun accompanies Jung-won as he is getting his stitches checked at the hospital. She tells him later over lunch that it looks worse than she had assumed. Also, I am not sure if it is purposeful that she has almost finished her meal and it looks like he has barely touched his, but anyways…He asks her about the hotel job, and she uses a piece of spaghetti on her plate to show him her idea for halogen lights in a spiral pattern.
Jung-won stares at the spiral until he is transported to a street in some town, standing on top of a drain grate. There is a truck, slowly backing up towards him. He cannot get out of the way, only squirm in place. Luckily, the truck stops before it gets too close.
That only makes Jung-won notice the grate underneath him. There is a…small bloody hand under there. And then the truck is gone, but there is a boy standing in front of him…showing him a drawing of a spiral.
Jung-won and his crew are renovating the mental health clinic. On the radio, the news reporter says that the mother of the girls who had died on the train has been arrested for poisoning them. At that moment, the patient from the other day comes in, and Chang-hyun has to tell her that the place is closed for the week. Apparently, she did not notice the notice outside. Because it had fallen to the floor. Chang-hyun puts the notice back up while Jung-won looks at her walking down the street. Hee-eun shows up at…just the wrong time, asking him what he is staring at, but doesn’t pry further. She had gone to his apartment to find the battery that he was looking for and stopped by to give it to him. She noted that many of the lights were on. He asks whether she turn them off when she left. She does not quite answer.
Jung-won goes back to his apartment very slowly makes his way inside. Something seems wrong, but he is not sure what. Suddenly, he hears someone calling to him from somewhere. He turns back around to see the girls sitting at his table. Oh, it was a dream. And Jung-won wakes up to see that his father had been standing there. It seems that his father had known about the nightmares, but seems to believe that they are due to Jung-won’s anxiety regarding his upcoming wedding and had hoped that they had stopped. He asks whether Jung-won is coming to morning prayers and Jung-won says yes.
Evening church session has just ended and everyone is leaving. Jung-won is giving people a lift home and his sister brings one more person to his car. Oh…it is the mental health clinic patient. Well, okay.
Eventually, it is only the two of them. Jung-won notes that she lives far from the church, but she responds that she only fairly recently moved from Ilsan. He talks about his job a bit and gives her his business card. They soon arrive at her to her apartment complex…which is also his apartment complex. Huh.
They are almost there when Jung-won has to stop to avoid hitting an injured cat. He turns to find that the woman has passed out. He manages to take her to his apartment and lays her on his sofa. He looks through her stuff and finds a card with her name, Yun-jung, and a number to call if she has fainted.
When Yun-jung wakes up, Jung-won tells her what happened and asks what she remembers. She does not answer, but apologizes for the trouble. He says that it was nothing and that her husband should be here soon. Yun-jung seems confused, but Jung-won notes the card with the number on it. She kind of acknowledges it.
As Jung-won is getting her some water, Yun-jung sees her husband’s car arriving outside. She tells Jung-won that he is here, so she should get going. She also tells him that he does not need to see her out as he probably should put his kids to bed.
Yun-jung is about to leave when Jung-won tells her to wait. He walks up to her and tells her to repeat what she had said. She repeats the part about her husband, but before he can clarify, her husband arrives. He introduces himself to Jung-won as Park Moon-sub and apologizes for the trouble. Yun-jung thanks Jung-won and leaves with Moon-sub. Jung-won is left wondering what the hell is going on.
Okay, just in case anyone was wondering, no, this is not a remake of 1987 American film Uninvited. Nor did this film get an American remake in 2009. The American film The Uninvited was actually a remake of the 2003 South Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters. A Tale of Two Sisters is…fine…maybe not something that I would feature here, but I gather that it was better received than this movie. All right, that is also fine. Both South Korean movies have different names in Korean, but the title mix-up is a little weird. I mean, this movie does have a pair of sisters…and there is a commonality regarding memory and trauma, but they are pretty different otherwise.
Everybody got that?
As you might be able to tell, Jung-won is the center of the story up until the point that I stopped my summary. He is in every scene except for a couple that last only a few seconds. But then after being at the periphery for a couple of scenes, Yung-jun suddenly takes center stage, becoming a kind of co-lead with a storyline that barely involves Jung-won. And, despite Seoul being such a big city, it appears that the encounters between the two are completely coincidental. They live in the same apartment complex? She attends his father’s church, despite it being outside of the city? She is a patient of the therapist whose office he is renovating? It seems like one too many coincidences. Narrative contrivance? Is she following him? Is there a higher power forcing them together? Is this power be for good or for very very bad?
This movie is not really scary. It has a few jump scares, if that scares you. But it does get under the skin with the sense of helplessness in the face of the unchangeable past and inevitable doom. At almost 128 minutes, it is a bit on the long side for a horror movie from 2003. For the most part, it is deliberately slow, dwelling on an uneasy atmosphere. There is not a lot of music, with the sounds of the environment or the quiet echoes of the aural void often taking center stage between the dialogue. When music is present, it starts out with what sounds like dreamlike tinkling pianos and harps, but eventually turns into moody ambient woodwind drones that can be either pretty or highly dissonant. And then, there is the…general theme.
This is Lee Soo-Youn’s debut as writer-director and it is bleeeak. She seems to be a rather private person, but I had managed to find one interview where she says that a theme is about people believing only what they can bear; that the subconscious can cover up and disregard truth, lashing out when a truth slips through the cracks. Yeah, that really comes through. I am not sure if something specific was going on in her life when she was writing this, in terms of children or motherhood fears or anything else, but…let’s just say that those two girls are not the only children in this movie to die. There seems to be a theme in this movie where children, both in the past and present, are mistreated, neglected, placed in peril, killed, and discarded in death (I swear that I had no idea about the events of Harris County, Texas when writing this up). And it takes the Se7en route of not allowing anyone to save them; they are not in mortal danger, they are already dead and there is nothing one can do about it. That said, not all adults are cruel or absentminded. Some are traumatized and grief-stricken, haunted by memories of death or struggling after having blocked certain memories from their minds, usually relating to kids getting killed.
There is a sense of oppressive loneliness that pervades the film. Jung-won lives in a huge and imposing apartment complex, but he seems to not meet any neighbor until encountering Yung-jun elsewhere. He is by himself in his apartment, with no need for a second umbrella. And it is not simply because there are not people around that make him lonely. A lot of it is self-imposed. He has co-workers and friends, but he does not confide in them. Despite plans for Hee-eun moving into Jung-won’s apartment after the wedding, he looks at her as if she is an interloper when she is there, nevermind when the dead girls show up. One can feel alienated from family members, even one’s own children. Jung-won and Yung-jun get…closer, but it is not really by either person’s choice and their relationship goes from ambiguous to bad to worse. There is quite a bit of storyline involving cellphones, how people try to communicate with each other when they are not together. Yet, characters, specifically Jung-won, don’t pick up the phone. Other people can be stifling, overwhelming. Even your own family. Especially your own family.
The original title for the movie is A Table for Four. Of course, this is a reference to the table in Jung-won’s apartment with the lights that Hee-eun made focus on the four seats. Theoretically, the table would seat four people, as in Jung-won, Hee-eun, and maybe their two children. But we see only Jung-won sitting there…unless you count the ghosts. And, not for nothing, the number 4 is associated with death and misfortune in many East Asian cultures. So, it is not surprising that that table invites the specter of death.
Again, this movie is more disturbing and unsettling than it is outright scary. Does that mean that it is not really a good Halloween movie? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I think that it is a good movie.
WTF ASIA 185: Penguin (India: 2020, approx. 132 minutes)
WTF ASIA 186: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Japan: 2013, approx. 137 minutes)