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In the landscape of horror cinema, Korean scary movies hold a special place in the hearts of discerning viewers with a refined sense for horror filmmaking. In recent decades, Korean horror films have found widespread acclaim on a global stage, seemingly emulating the glory days of Japanese horror, which seem to be long past – well before the collapse of California and when the NFL started to help the Patriots win Super Bowls.

Very likely, you would find Korean scary movies to be very different from what you know as the archetype of a horror movie. Smart, understated, and self-aware, Korean horror films do not rely on gratuitous violence to make their impact. Rather, they delve deep into the recesses of human psyche and keep things real and relatable. This translates to less blood and gore but more scares per film. There is a strange honesty that lends to its darkness.

While many are familiar with cult-status films like Oldboy, or recent Korean flicks that have garnered mainstream appeal like Parasite and Train to Busan, a broad-strokes look at Korean horror requires looking at more films, including true Korean horror trendsetters like The Wailing, The Host, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Let us indulge in a bird’s-eye view of Korean scary movies and analyze some of the common motifs.

Normalcy and Comic Relief – A False Sense of Security

There is one thing that Korean scary movies excel at – luring the audience into a false sense of security. When you watch a horror film, you are expecting to be scared and consequently have your guard up. This can severely minimize the film’s effect.

In Korean horror, it is common for things to start off looking entirely normal, peaceful, and even comic. Gradually, this helps viewers get into a comfort zone, let their guard down, and become primed for the full impact for the scares to come.

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The Wailing, 2016

With many Korean horror films, you might be confused at first, thinking you are actually watching a romance or a comedy. The buildup is full of normal people being their normal selves, parents being goofy and comical, and children being simple and mischievous. Even supposedly serious or scary scenes are often given the comic treatment, making the viewer’s comfortable but keeping a small seed of incongruity in the back of the mind.

When the horror hits, it does so without warning or indication. It plunges the viewers into pure horror without premonition, exacting the last drop of impact. This element of contrast creates a feeling of intrusion—you feel that whatever is going wrong is intruding in your previously established comfort zone, making you extremely uncomfortable. This is often how Korean scary movies achieve their profound impact without the need for graphic violence or blood and gore.

Do You REALLY Know What Is Going On?

American horror cinema, more often than not, gets consumed with a detailed attempt to “explain” a ghost or curse. The source of the horror often gets a detailed backstory, rigorous discussions and debates, and long-winding exposition scenes. Very little is left to imagination. Nothing is subtle.

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With Korean scary movies, things are the polar opposite. Mostly, viewers are given a cursory look at the events and left to their own devices. In some cases, directors choose to explicitly put the horror element front and center early on in the film, only to intersperse them with seemingly normal or unrelated scenes, offering little information or explanation.

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The Host, 2006

In fact, in certain cases, this is supposed to work as an eyewash — an elaborate deception that masks the true nature of the horror. You might see a ghost and know for sure that it is behind the haunting, whereas in reality it might all be a quirk in the mind of a character. This way, filmmakers keep viewers at a distance from reality and reveal it gradually, often at the same pace as the characters in the films.

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Abject Despair and Melodrama in Korean Scary Movies

At their culmination, Korean scary movies do one thing very differently. More often than not, their main focus is not on fear, but despair. While fear can cripple and paralyze, it is also known to trigger a fight-or-flight response. Despair, on the other hand, can be crushing, absolute, and utterly inescapable. As the light of hope slowly extinguishes, you are left feeling empty and dejected.

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Melodrama is often a key element of Korean scary movies for this very reason. Instead of complex concepts bordering on the absurd, you get simple realities of life, flaws in people, the consequences of repressing powerful emotions, and a no-nonsense, realistic look at society at large.

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A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003

In these unique ways, Korean scary movies can provide discerning viewers of horror a welcome change. Intellectual, incredibly well-made and well-shot, deep and philosophical, and radically different from most horror you have even seen, Korean horror movies can nevertheless be the scariest of them all and achieve that effect with very little grandstanding, prop use, or special effects. Their stark, dismal quality and unique approach and execution make them a true treat if you are looking to get scared without having to visit Portland or NYC.

Last Updated on April 16, 2021.

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