... aka: Suddenly in Dark Night
Young Nam Ko
Wealthy entomologist / professor Yu-jin (Yun Il-bong) returns home from a long butterfly collecting trip and, as he's watching a slide show of his discoveries with colleagues, notices a slide of a creepy, white-faced wooden doll brandishing a cleaver has somehow made its ways in with all his butterfly pictures. Yu-jin's wife, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae), sees this and instantly becomes both frightened by and obsessed with the image and keeps have reoccurring visions of it. Yu-jin goes away on another long trip and this time returns with a guest: 19-year-old Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon). The professor found her wandering the streets and, since they've been unable to find a replacement housekeeper for one who just quit, has decided to bring her home, give her a job, put her up in a room and treat her as part of the family. The couple know next to nothing about the mysterious girl except that she's the daughter of a famous shaman, her mother died in a mysterious fire, she's very protective over a bundle of something she's brought along with her that she keeps wrapped up in a sheet and she doesn't appear to be all that bright. However, once she gets a shower, lets down her hair and gets her hands on some decent clothes, she's rather attractive.
At first, Seon-hee is delighted to have both a helping hand and regular company in the home. After all, it's a big place, she has a young daughter to take care of and her husband is frequently away and of little help. But something appears to be not quite right with Mi-ok. Though she does as she's told and is usually pretty pleasant, Seon-hee discovers the girl's wrapped bundle contains the same strange wooden doll that had miraculously turned up in her hubby's slide show. The doll, which is sometimes referred to as an “ancestral tablet,” is possibly inhabited by evil spirits and was the last thing Mi-ok's mother gave her before dying. Seon-hee tries her best to be compassionate about the situation, but she's haunted by bad dreams / hallucinations about both it and Mi-ok, which eventually lead her to believe she's trying to kill her. She also feels insecure about the fact the girl is younger, has a better body and nicer skin. Once she's comfortable there, she even starts parading around in unbuttoned blouses and miniskirts in front of the husband. However, there's another side to this story... Mi-ok may not be malicious at all. It may all just be in Seon-hee's head.
Seon-hee's bitchy, cold, astoundingly uncaring best friend Eun-yeong (who's about the worst kind of “friend” imaginable) has already been filling her head with all sorts of terrible ideas. She tells her she's undesirable because she's nearly 30-years-old and that perhaps her husband is always out of town because he may be cheating on her. Seon-hee starts feeling extremely insecure and paranoid, begins lashing out, stops sleeping and takes on a gaunt appearance. Her husband stops making love to her. All of the suspicious and scary things she's been seeing, including hubby sneaking in and out of Mi-ok's room at night, may all be in her mind. In other words, she may be going insane. After awhile, everyone's patience has been worn thin dealing with her and they can only strongly recommend she get a psychiatric evaluation. Seon-hee, however, is so convinced the new maid is out to get her and take over her life that she refuses to seek help.
While the general set-up (“Is she insane or isn't she?” / “Is this really happening or isn't it?”) is hardly original, the material is presented in such a bizarre, super-stylized way that it ends up hardly even mattering. The cinematography, art direction, music score and editing are all excellent and there's great use made of color, overlapping images and exterior frame blurs (what I like to call the “Vaseline-smeared-lens effect”). But where this really differentiates itself is in its liberal use of kaleidoscopic effects. The kaleidoscope effect – swirling circles of the same face, triangles splitting individual portions of the screen image into different directions - is applied to specific sequences that are questionable in the narrative. They're moments that either happened or didn't; strange supernatural events actually taking place or delusions Seon-hee is conjuring up in her own fractured mind. There's also a frequently-used shot that appears to go right through a glass bottle. During one of these bottle shots the camera makes an up-and-down wave motion as it pans across a room and the effect is pretty striking. This is a great example of visual chutzpah elevating the material.
I'd never heard of the leading actress before watching this, but she's extremely impressive in her role and does a fantastic job of modulating her performance. The character does nearly a complete 180 over the course of the film and Kim Young-ae is completely invested in this character from beginning to end. In less-showy roles, all of the other actors are fine, as well. This also deserves credit for a decent twist in the third act, which manages to alter what we think (to an extent) whilst maintaining the ambiguity. The ending is very much like the ending of The Innocents (1961), where it's up to us to determine whether something supernatural was ever at play or not. This works either way.
Currently with just 36 votes (and no reviews) on IMDb, and with no official VHS or DVD release ever here in the U.S., this can now join the ranks of dozens upon dozens of other very worthwhile Asian genre offerings that are still awaiting a wider audience.