Exhuma: Korean occult horror excavates multiple layers of weirdness

A shaman and a geomancer must lift a dark curse and exhume a body from a mountain top grave on the border between South and North Korea in this dense folkloric horror.

Exhuma (2024)

Exhuma (Pamyo in Korean, literally ‘digging’) opens on a plane travelling from Seoul to Los Angeles, signifying both the cross-cultural trip on which we are being taken, and perhaps the film’s status as writer/director Jang Jae-hyun’s ticket to Hollywood. Certainly Hollywood has no shortage of exorcism movies, but Korea has its own homegrown possession pictures like Hong-jin Na’s The Wailing (2016), Seong-sik Kim’s Dr Cheon and the Lost Talisman (2023), or indeed two of Jang’s own previous features, The Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019). These allow for a welcome polytheistic, polysemic approach to the genre. In a nation where Korean shamanism, Buddhism and Christianity sit alongside each other and additional religions from neighbouring countries, different frames of faith can be syncretised to uncanny effect, both defamiliarising and resurrecting the tropes of exorcism.

Hwa-rim (Go-eun Kim) and her assistant Bong-gil (Do-hyun Lee) have been summoned by superrich Ji-yong Park (Jae-cheol Kim) to lift a dark curse afflicting his family’s firstborns, including himself and his own baby son. Hwa-rim immediately suspects a “grave’s call” – a restless ancestor – and so turns to veteran geomancer Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and his Christian apprentice Yeong-geun (Hae-jin Yoo). Together they must exhume the body of a Park patriarch from its ominous mountain-top grave on the border between North and South Korea so that it can be put to rest in a more propitious setting, or cremated and the spirit forever dispelled.

In a film where borders matter, both Hwa-rim and Sang-deok straddle the boundary between spiritual and material. While professionals are working to ghost-bust the Parks, they are also fleecing them for profit. Much as these characters are conflicted, Exhuma itself is split into two halves that the viewer must work hard to reconcile, the first involving a malicious ancestral spirit, and the second – well, without spoiling, let’s just say that when, in the opening scene, a flight attendant mistakenly assumes that Hwa-rim is Japanese, this foreshadows a confusion that will come to pervade the film’s folkloric foundations.

Exhuma itself digs deep to disinter a range of historical and cultural influences, all as a way of revealing the different horrors that have contributed to today’s divided, haunted Korea. It makes up for its paucity of scares through the multiple layers of weirdness that it excavates, as one (burial) plot leads to another and as legacy, whether genetic or national, has unseen depths.  

 ► Exhuma is in UK cinemas now.