Monday, March 11, 2024

Pimag (1980)

... aka: 피막
... aka: 避幕
... aka: Bi mu
... aka: Death Cottage, The
... aka: House of Death
... aka: Hut, The
... aka: Pee-Mak
... aka: Pimak
... aka: Woman's Grudge and Exorcism, A

Directed by:
Doo-yong Lee

Wealthy village leader's son Seong-min (Beom-gi Kim) is dying. Believing he may be possessed by evil spirits, Master Jin-sa Kang (Seong-ho Choi), his wife (Shook Jeon) and his mother Noma-nim aka Great Madam (Jeong-sun Hwang) enlist the aid of shamans from all over the countryside in hopes that one of them can finally cure him. Many elaborate exorcism rituals are performed, including a man dancing on sharp blades, but none seem to release Seong-min from his spell. Priestess Ok-hwa (Ji-in Yu) manages to impress them the most by casually removing a venomous snake from the son's deathbed and then using her powers to make it slither away. She threatens to leave unless her demands are met, which include money and them banishing all other shamans from the village and allowing her to take charge. The desperate family agree to her terms.

Unlike most of the con artists working the spiritualist circuit, Ok-hwa appears to be the real deal. Spending days and nights meditating and praying, she's eventually able to uncover some clues as to what's actually causing the illness. She beats Seong-min with a tree branch, which seems to release an animal-voiced demon, then lets the branch lead her to a secluded spot in the woods. Dropping down to her knees, she digs through the dirt and reveals a buried, smoking bottle. Somehow the top of the bottle has been broken off, which may have unleashed a spirit in the process.

The bottle housed the remains of someone named Sam-dol and the Kang family are hush-hush about both who he is and how he met his untimely demise twenty years earlier. However, Ok-hwa will need this information if she's to be able to exorcise the ghost from the home. And none too soon. Hunchbacked butler Kim (Tae-il Han) starts spitting up blood and keels over simply for holding the bottle, so even though the spirit has perhaps left the son's body for the time being it's certainly not through tormenting the family. But why is it doing this?

Lengthy flashbacks show us the sad fate of Sam-dol (Namkoong Won - A DEVILISH MURDER), a lonely, unshaven half-wit who was stuck with perhaps the worst and least rewarding job ever: running a remote 'death hut' on the outskirts of the village where the terminally ill are brought to die. Think hospice, only dirty, without a trained medical staff, appropriate equipment and adequate pain management. The excuse for this place even existing is superstitious nonsense about spirits not being able to find their way back to the village but the real reason is more likely that the wealthy didn't want to deal with the emotionally-draining, stressful task of seeing their loved ones through their final few days. Much easier to shuffle all responsibility off onto outcast Sam-dol, who's apparently deemed fit to deal with the dying but otherwise treated as a leper driven to living alone on the fringes of their society.

The Kang family are obsessed with prestige, tradition and reputation. Since men in the family have had a bad habit of passing away at a very young age, the widows left behind were forced into a life of chastity until death as not to tarnish the family's good name. In the meantime, some of the surviving widows have resorted to whipping, burning, cutting, vaginal mutilation and other self-harm techniques as a means to keep their desires at bay.

After repeatedly stabbing herself in between the legs with a dagger, one such widow, Ms. Lee (Yun-kyeong Kim), was taken to the death hut. Great Madam convinced Sam-dol to make love to her as a last minute means to appease her and keep her from returning as a tormented spirit. Then a funny thing happened: After tending to the widow's wounds with herbs, Sam-dol was able to save her life. At first outraged at being taken advantage of while in a vulnerable state, Ms. Lee discovers the truth and finds herself drawn to the outcast. She starts visiting him, doing his laundry and bringing him food and new clothes. Before long, the two begin a consensual sexual relationship. All in secret, of course. It has to be in secret. Remember that all-important Kang family reputation?

But Ms. Lee eventually found herself pregnant, the Kang clan men discovered what had been going on and the only way to conceal it was to murder them both. Ms. Lee's body got tossed over a cliff into the ocean in a staged suicide while Sam-dol's spirit was drawn out by a shaman, captured and housed in a bottle, which was then buried outside of the village. Returning to modern day, a revenge motive is revealed and some (though sadly not all) of the deserving characters get their comeuppance in a variety of different ways (snakes, hanging, wheat cutter...) during the climactic exorcism finale.

One certainly can't argue about the technical merits on display here. This is a professionally directed, acted, written and shot film, which gets most of its mileage from its subtext as opposed to the actual plot itself, which is a bit too predictable. 

Still, it's fascinating (in a bleak, depressing kind of way, at least!) watching something made over 40 years ago that calls out certain obvious, harmful societal issues only to realize those same exact issues are still very much with us today, and perhaps always will be. It's doubly disheartening that this film was made over 40 years ago but is set way before that (some time in the 15th - 19th century Chosun Dynasty), and, if anything, the issues addressed have only gotten worse. Though this may have been directly mirroring certain contemporary problems in South Korea (I'm not so sure since I don't know what was going on there at the time), what this has to say is universal and still timely. Essentially we're presented a village that's a microcosm of a larger society. Even on such a small scale, the corrosive effects of living in a plutocracy where wealth, power, reputation and family name mean everything, and ultimately determine one's fate, are clear as day.

Some of the men in the wealthy Kang family don't even believe in spirits yet pretend like they do in polite company; secretly using superstition as a tool to manipulate and exploit the peasantry in essentially the same way modern day politicians use religion to manipulate and exploit the poor and middle class. This patriarchal society grants men, even married ones, the ability to have sex with whomever they please (even if by force), while women of equal social standing are made to live like nuns when widowed or even get killed for falling in love with someone beneath their social standing.

As far as Ok-hwa is concerned, she's in the unfortunate position of being a woman, poor and in a line of work that's considered lowly and disreputable within this society, which means the wealthy men around her think nothing of utilizing her services one day and raping her the next, knowing they'll always be protected and no one's ever really going to care what becomes of her. Limited in options, Ok-hwa's only way to really fight back is to use sex as a tool to manipulate these men whenever possible, but this also dooms her to a lonely existence. Her grim potential future is cleverly reflected right back at her by the elderly, territorial local female shaman (Jeong-ok Ra) who eventually takes her under her wing. She's been used when needed for many, many years, but has still been forced to live in isolation on the outskirts of the village and is frequently mocked as an "old hag."

This won two awards - Sam-yuk Yoon for Best Screenplay and Kyeong-ja Lee for Best Editing - at the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, a Best Actor award (for Won) from the Grand Bell Awards (Korea's Oscar equivalent) and a Best Director Award at the Baeksang Arts Awards. Most notably, it was the first film in twenty years to win a major international film award after it took home a special prize at the Venice Film Festival. Because of that, this is considered a key title when it comes to getting the ball rolling on global recognition of Korean cinema. Just look where we are today! Not only are Korean horror films regularly acclaimed and popular around the world, but who would have ever guessed a worthy South Korean film (Joon-ho Bong's Parasite) would make history over 40 years later by winning Best Picture, Director and Screenplay Academy Awards? And, just one year later, veteran Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn (WOMAN OF FIRE) would make history yet again for winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Minari (2000).

There was only one VHS release that I'm aware of, in Korea (under the English title Pee-Mak) on the Goldstar Video label. However, this was given a boost when it was chosen by the Korean Film Archive as one of the 100 most important Korean films of all time. KFA then oversaw a remaster and Blu-ray release of the film, which comes with English subtitles and includes a commentary track from the director. This is also free to view (with English subs) on KFA's Youtube channel, though the quality isn't nearly as good as the physical release judging by the photos I've seen.

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