Friday, November 3, 2023

Manglyeong-ui gog (1980)

... aka: 망령의 곡
... aka: Bloudy Smile (Bloody Smile)
... aka: Ghost's Song
... aka: Mangryongui Kok
... aka: Song of the Dead
... aka: Wail of the Ghost

Directed by:
Yun-kyo Park

According to the Korean Film Archive, this thoroughly unimpressive film actually helped kick start a horror film revival of sorts in South Korea. While there were genre releases in the 60s and 70s, horror, unlike in most other Asian countries, wasn't one of their more popular genres until the 80s, and the surprise box office success of this particular title helped to usher that all in. Shame that the movie itself is rather weak.

After the death of her parents, teenager Jeom-rye (Mi-ok Ji) has been staying with, and relying on the generosity of, some Buddhist monks. That is until she's hit with an offer too good to pass up from the wealthy Madam Kim (Shook Jeon). The Kim family will provide her a home, money and a comfortable life in exchange for her agreeing to an arranged marriage with their thirty-something son, Tae-hwa (Se-hyuk Jeong). Jeom-rye takes them up on their offer and is soon relocated to the home, but signs this is going to be an unpleasant arrangement are present right away. The Kim family are desperate for an heir; so desperate they'd already banished Tae-hwa's previous wife from their home because she kept having miscarriages. After Jeom-rye dolls herself up to be presentable for their honeymoon, she has to sit and patiently wait half the evening for her new husband to even show up. When he does, he's drunk, brutish and almost passes out before the two can even consummate their relationship.

While she makes it clear that having a grandson to carry on the family name is of utmost importance to her, Mrs. Kim also pampers her new daughter-in-law and positions herself as a trusted confidant; encouraging her to speak openly and honestly with her. However, that nice behavior doesn't last too long. When the now-pregnant Jeom-rye goes to the hospital for a check-up, her gynecologist (Seung-il Lee) discovers she has an "ovarian insufficiency" (tumor) that will lead to gastrointestinal and heart issues, and likely death, if it's not immediately removed. The problem? Removing it also means sacrificing the now-three-month-old fetus. Since the fetus stands a good chance of surviving even if Jeom-rye doesn't, Mrs. Kim demands the baby be born at the potential cost of her otherwise "useless being" of a daughter-in-law.

Though she's fully aware of what's going on, Jeom-rye has no one to turn to and figures her strong religious faith (uh) will be enough to save her (oh). Six months later, she finds herself tied down to a hospital bed pleading for her life, gods be damned. The corrupt surgeon (Min-gyu Kim) in charge of the delivery has already been instructed by the rich and powerful father-in-law, Man-ho (Gi-jong Kim), to favor the baby over the mother. To no one's surprise, Jeom-rye ends up being the sacrificial lamb in this scenario. Even less of a surprise, no one in the Kim family is too horribly broken up about it since a healthy baby boy was able to be removed via c-section prior to Jeom-rye's passing. To rub additional salt in the wound, the poor girl can't even have her burial wishes met. Instead of being interred at the temple, Tae-hwa has a few of his workers bury her in the mountains near a construction site.

Now that we've established that the entire Kim family (save the baby) need to die horrible deaths at the hands of our heroine's vengeful ghost, and one would hope for some atmosphere and visual style, a few scares and perhaps some cool special effects as that's going on, our expectations go unfulfilled here in the worst of ways. The direction and camerawork are mostly dull and do nothing to spruce up the tired plot. In addition to that, the pacing of this film is terrible and there are no special effects unless one counts poorly-executed jump cuts, a couple of fish eye lens and kaleidoscope shots and colored lighting on ghost faces, as effects.

As far as the kills are concerned, they're unimaginative and almost entirely bloodless. The ghost first takes out the three construction workers because they didn't give her the burial she wanted. One is "accidentally" killed when an explosion goes off. Another tries to run over the ghost and it causes his truck to explode. And the last is killed when he Tae-hwa confronts him and sends him falling over a cliff onto some rocks. The ghost is able to eventually drive Tae-hwa mad by calling out to him and plaguing him with nightmares, then heads to the hospital to possesses the surgeon, who tries to stab his nurse (Ju Hyeon) with a scalpel and chases her to the rooftop, where the two fall to their deaths.

Instead of immediately dispatching the Kim family, the ghost just, uh, lies dormant for two-and-a-half decades! 25 years after the initial killing spree, the now-grown son of Jeom-rye, Jeong-yeon (Cheol Kang), has just married a woman named Young-sook (Young-yee Jo), and the two are getting ready to start their own family. Things come to a head when the young couple go home for a family visit, and Jeom-rye's spirit possesses Young-sook, which is so poorly-done you don't even know she's inhabiting a host body until a monk (Am Park - IO ISLAND) finally shows up to do a proper exorcism. I have no clue why the ghost waited so long to try to kill the family nor why it took the monk 25 years to perform an exorcism, especially since he's the same monk who was housing Jeom-rye prior to her death.

In addition to not being particularly interesting in form or content, this makes the fatal mistake of trying to flip the script in the last 15 minutes; expecting us to now sympathize with this awful family! Apparently they're all now "enlightened" after becoming hardcore Buddhists and atoning for their past sins. Never mind the fact that, due to arrogance, impatience and a stupid family bloodline obsession, they actually murdered an innocent young woman, tried to hide her body, stole her baby and didn't spend a second in prison for any of it. Clearly that's all just water under bridge now that they're religious! From an American perspective, this is basically equivalent to how roughly 99% of incarcerated killers, rapists, child molesters, etc. will become born again Christians and think claiming such should automatically afford them leniency, while the sane among us just hope they stay locked up.

There are also flagrantly sexist (the only family member to pay with their life ends up being the only female family member involved) and classist (the working class folks who help the family are immediately slaughtered, yet the wealthy elites get a chance at redemption and are supposedly worthy of our sympathy) elements to the script that are difficult to stomach. I expected a lot better from this considering the director was a genre veteran who made at least 15 horror films between 1967 and 1985. Maybe I just watched one of the rotten ones.

To my knowledge, this was never given an official release outside of South Korea. Even though the original title translates to "Song of the Dead" and this is also sometimes listed online as "Song of the Ghost" or "Ghost's Song," the original English title (seen on the 1983 Korean VHS release) was "Bloody Smile". Well, actually it's "Bloudy Smile" but someone, perhaps the same dude who wrote the English subtitles for older Hong Kong and Taiwanese films, used a long-ago-obsolete spelling!

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