Yeh, yeh…I know what you are thinking. Asian horror has become redundant with long-haired vengeful ghosts that seek relief from their torment. While I would agree, the “Yurei” or long-haired pale-faced ghost is actually a significant part of Asian lore; much like vampires, werewolves and zombies and we, as Americans never get tired of those elements…so why should Asians? The Jung Brothers’ horror drama “EPITAPH” (a.k.a. “The Last Breath”) is a film that tries something different and puts this horror film in the middle of a period drama that takes place during Japan’s occupation of Korea. The film is an episodic tale of three different short stories similar to “Three Extremes” but different since they are all linked together.
February, 1942. Jung-Nam Park (Ku Jin) is a young Med student who is engaged to be married to a woman he had never met. He is also assigned to watch over the cadavers in the morgue that during this time, he falls in love with a frozen dead woman (talk about necrophilia). A new patient also gets admitted who was the lone survivor of a fatal car accident. This young girl named Asoka (Joo-Yeon Ko) also becomes haunted by ghosts every night. Meanwhile, a young married couple, doctors In-Young (Bo-Kyeong Kim) and Dong-Won Kim (Tae-Soo Kim, Hypnotized) arrives from Japan and suddenly a rash of murders begin to happen…just what is this sinister hospital?
The Jung brothers focus on a central theme; “Ghosts” and they attempt to challenge the thin lines between fragmented storytelling, arty style and a ostentatious narrative because of the way the stories are linked together by a common place, beautiful cinematography and bloody scenes embedded in its equation. The film does have the potential for a compelling storyline but for some reason, the direction fails to make a connection with its execution. The film is about the longing, sadness and loneliness of tormented souls and the sufferings of those left behind.
“Epitaph” is a haunting horror film and the style with which it is shot is just so enthralling; from the set designs (the morgue with wooden freezers), symbolisms are used (the use of dreams and hallucinations), the flower petals that gently eases into the wind and the manner with which the Jung bros. concentrate in enriching the visuals with touches of familiar objects that are seen in haunting locality. Once we see just how beautiful the film is, then the direction gives us a taste of gore and several freaky images. They do manage to capture the visceral images in delightful imagery; the audience will be drawn in, have their stomachs turn and then have them swim in the film’s plotline. It was obvious that the direction took inspiration from “A Tale of Two Sisters”.
However, the problems with “Epitaph” isn’t its style or even the performances. It is the manner the stories are laid out for the audience. There are a lot of characters in the film and the viewer has to pay the utmost attention in remembering each one. It is very similar to “Three Extremes” because of the three tales of horror; the story of Jung-Nam, the haunting of Asoka and the husband whose wife casts no shadow--but the cohesiveness of the story is just too episodic for its own good. It has ambition, but the way they were put together just proved too alienating even for me who is very used to mind-benders. Also, the tales themselves aren’t really that original or inventive; it is alright even if it wasn’t very compelling as long as it keeps the pace tight and precise. But the film’s plot is just left to wallow in its familiar groundwork. There is also a twist near the end, but it lacked sufficient legwork that it seemed to be a mere attempt at a cheap shock than as an inherent part of the film’s main premise.
The elements and devices in the film are just very familiar. It touches on the aforementioned “A Tale of Two Sisters”, a bit of “Uzumaki” and some of Takashi Miike’s tone; heck, it even throws in a bit of “Psycho” into the mix. I guess the Jung Bros. focused too much in making the film very pretty that they may have missed the fact that the story needed to be more cohesive as to generate non-stop tension to accompany its beautiful visuals in the cinematic experience.
Thankfully, the cast does turn out with several good performances, most notably by young Joo-Yeon Ko who plays Asoka, the girl haunted by ghosts and she proves to be the film’s saving grace. It was very easy to sympathize with her, although her character was a little too twisted. Ko manages to bring out several dramatic performances that can certainly get the viewer involved in the story. The other characters were pretty low key besides Bo-Kyeong Kim who is just so charming and sometimes creepy as the loving wife who casts no shadow.
“Epitaph” is a fair attempt at another entry in the books of Korean horror. While the direction got a little too careless in its conclusions and the twists emerging as too cheap; as the film tries too hard to take a stab to surprise the audience in a story that isn‘t much more than it should have been. Still, despite the clumsy storytelling, the film does manage to pull off some decent scares and some gruesome imagery. Sadly, because of the numerous familiar devices, the film was left with too much to put together and it faltered in this department. “Epitaph” is a beautiful movie with haunting imagery, strong photography and ambition; but it all feels a little hollow because of the way it overplayed its cards.
Recommended timidly with caution, a RENTAL first would be advisable [3 Stars]
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