Grave Mistakes: EXHUMA is a Chilling Korean Ghost Story

Now available on VOD from Well Go USA, Exhuma is a uniquely South Korean film that combines elements of folklore, shamanism, Christianity, and cultural superstitions into a weird, twisting, chilling ghost story.

Choi Min-Sik (the eponymous Oldboy) stars as a Kim Sang-Deok, a “geomancer”, or terrain expert, who – along with his partner Young Geun (Yoo Hae-jin, easily my favorite Korean character actor), a prestigious undertaker – plies his craft to assess and sell burial plots with respect to myriad variables of traditional superstitions and feng shui: pleasant surroundings, dry and clean soil, facing the right direction, preferably with a nice scenic view. The pair are also sometimes called upon when an angry ancestor is punishing their descendents from beyond the grave – performing exhumations and inspections to determine the cause of granny’s unrest.

The pair are pulled in by another team, young shamans Hwarim (Kim Go-eun) and Bong Gil (Lee Do-hyun), who need help with a particularly lucrative but difficult job. Their client is a very wealthy family believed to be haunted by their ancestor for reasons unknown. From the start, Sang-deok feels like things are a little off with the particulars around this case, but reluctantly agrees to help.

This setup may sound like a bunch of con artists relieving rich idiots of their money, and certainly there’s an element of opportunism in the nature of their work – but these characters believe quite firmly and religiously in the spiritual and supernatural aspects of their craft. (The film might actually even be more interesting if they were skeptics or impostors, but that’s not the story being told here – these are genuine believers).

Things go from bad to worse when the grave site turns out to be far more sinister than Sang-deok could have anticipated: a dreary wood, sour earth, and a tombstone bearing no name. It’s an ominous and portentous place, and by all indicators grandpa is deeply disturbed in his unrestful slumber.

Conceptually all this may sound pretty foreign but the film does a great job of setting up the rules and lore, and the film maintains an understandable internal logic even if it weren’t based on real world beliefs (which it is). Curious about this, I asked my mother, who is Korean, about these customs and superstitions, and she affirmed that they’re quite commonly held, or at least commonly known.

The film swings wildly into an unexpected direction that I’ll just leave unexpounded, but all this setup is leading to a terrifying encounter with a vengeful spirit far more powerful, evil, intimidating, than any of our protagonists could ever have expected.

Fans of The Wailing will definitely latch onto this tale and its portrayal of some of the weirder and darker aspects of Korean (and Japanese) lore. It’s effective in being consistently scary, both in terms of general foreboding and creeping dread, as well as the chilling supernatural encounters and key reveals including a couple of intense moments of “holy shit, what the fuck was that” which, again, I’m going to just leave alone. But this is definitely a creepy, smart, and worthwhile horror film with some cool and unique cultural elements that haven’t been widely explored in cinema.

– A/V Out

Exhuma is now available on VOD and arrives on Shudder this Friday, June 14. The film is currently being prepped for home video release in October.

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