Vengeful Spirits


Exhuming a grave can be a complicated business. Ancient rituals must be performed correctly and in order, especially if the cadaver is morally corrupted. The removal must be “clean,” or the disharmony can affect generations to come.

This mythology drives the new film Exhuma, a spirited (excuse the pun) and terrifically entertaining tale that’s part ghost story, part procedural, part thriller, and part creature feature. It’s hyped as a “Korean occult film,” but it crosses genres. Its cast is engaging, and its action works in exhilarating elements of magic, folklore, martial arts, and dance.

A renowned shaman and her protégé are hired by a mysterious wealthy family to investigate the cause of an illness that affects only the firstborn children of each generation. They trace it back to an enigmatic ancestor who died a century ago and was buried in an unknown location.

Turns out the grave is situated on a dark mountaintop, guarded by foxes. A geomancer is brought in to evaluate the soil; its mineral richness indicates the moral state of the body it hosts. The shamans summon and extract the spirits and cleanse the grave with dances and spells, clearing out ghosts and any clinging spiritual debris before relocating or cremating the remains.

The casket removed, things go haywire: one gravedigger finds a colorful serpent winding at his feet and skewers it before seeing it has a human head (!) That’s just the beginning. Something much darker emerges, and the exhumation team discovers what’s in store for those who disturb the wrong grave.

Exhuma has the best energy of what’s currently coming out of South Korea. It’s kinetic and has a Wack-a-mole plot: one threat is vanquished, and then another rears its head. The movie’s fizz comes from its characters, themselves recognizable from the K-fare shown on venues like Netflix. The vigor of the youthful shamans played by Kim Go-eun (from Hero and the South Korean series Little Women), and Lee Do-hyun (from Honeysweet and The Night Owl) is counterbalanced by the middle-aged team of fatherly Choi Mi-sik (so good in Oldboy and I Saw the Devil) as the geomancer and his assistant, mortician Young-geun, played by Yoo Hai-Jin (of Dog Days and Honeysweet).

Director Jang Jae-hyun is best known for films of the occult, Svaha: The Sixth Finger and The Priests. Here, he navigates the sinuous course of events with the confidence of a seasoned genre director. Exhuma is both epic and intimate. By going with, in his words, "the most realistic and intuitive" approach, Jang Jae-hyun creates a visceral cinema experience.

Exhuma’s scale keeps the action close to the ground, making the sudden appearance of supernatural elements even more suspenseful. Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography and Seo Sung-kyung’s production design make the most of its palette of earth tones. Set pieces abound: a solo tango dancer, lost in the passion, is joined by a ghostly partner in front of a massive TV monitor; an intricately choreographed ceremony, “Dances of the Dead,” is filmed and edited with a minimum of CGI (the production is proud of that).

Politics is an underpinning as well. The haunted gravesite offers an unobstructed view of North Korea. The uneasy history of Korea and Japan is an issue in the form of a gargantuan warrior who is accidentally released from limbo. He’s not a ghost or a demon, being more substantial than an apparition. He’s an anima: a malevolent being solid enough to leave a footprint and a shadow. “He screamed for a century, but no one came to free him. Only his resentment remained.” And now unbound, he's ready to wreak havoc.


Exhuma. Directed by Jang Jae-hyun. 2024. From Well Go USA Entertainment.

On VOD, DVD, and Blue-Ray. 134 minutes.

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