The Uninvited Review
The current trend in horror cinema within South Korea has been something of a frustrating experience lately, as many companies are sticking to convention by producing titles spurned on by a several Asian success stories, namely those to have emerged from Japan. It’s nice once in a while to see the industry sit up and say “we don’t need this any more” as they put out classy films that show a far better sense of personal growth and individuality. The Uninvited is not unlike Kim Ji-wun’s A Tale of Two Sisters - also released in 2003 – and my personal fave Sorum. This means that it falls into the category of psychological drama with dark elements that can indeed be looked at as being horrific. The trouble is that today South Korea still markets a lot of these features in a way that goes against the true nature of them; while some, such as The Record are shameless rip-offs from American teen slashers like I Know What you did Last Summer and manage to deliver in a stupid, but ‘as said on the tin’ manner, others are totally misinterpreted. Indeed today South Korea has established a name for itself in horror, but can we really refer to titles like The Uninvited as such? What we have is a hybrid, an interesting meld of genres that sits quite comfortably in its own nest. While marketing it may be difficult it is still nonetheless an intriguing tale of the human condition.
Kang Jung-won (Park Shin-yang) is an interior decorator who is soon to be married to his loving girlfriend Hee-eun (Yu Seon). Tired, after a long day at work, Jung-won falls asleep on the train home but manages to wake up at the very last stop. When he exits the train he sees two sleeping children left onboard, but he fails to react in getting them out. When he returns home he finds that Hee-eun has purchased a new dining table with snazzy light fixtures and she informs him that this is all very good. While Jung-won is working the next day he hears on the radio that two young girls were killed on a train, which soon has him wondering if these were the same children he saw the night before. When he returns home the same day he sees the dead girls sitting on opposite ends of the dining table; he then begins to worry about his state of health, which in turn affects his work and love life.
One day he goes to a mental health clinic to plan out renovation work when he sees a young and troubled woman, who for some reason interests him. Her name is Yun-jung (Jun Ji-hyun) and for the past year she has been suffering from narcolepsy, ever since the death of her young child, brought on at the hands of a crazed friend. One night, after a church meeting, Jung-won is designated as a driver for those who live too far out, and one of these people happens to be Yun-jung. After dropping everyone home Jung-won is left to take Yun-jung to her apartment, and he learns that she lives in the same complex, just above his room. When he accidentally hits a cat she passes out and the only thing that he can think of doing is to take her to his apartment. After she wakes and her husband Park Moon-sub (Park Won-sang) comes to collect her she tells Jung-won that he should put his children to rest. Knowing that she too can see these apparitions Jung-won begs her to help him in trying to understand why they haunt him, but she refuses to at first because she knows that the consequences won’t be pretty. After persuading her to do so they begin to spend more time with each other, which soon results in some startling revelations…
Upon its release in 2003 The Uninvited met with relatively poor ticket sales. Although Jun Ji-hyun headlined the feature writer/director Lee Su-yeon was a lesser known face with no pulling power to her name, though I won’t merely presume this to be the sole factor. Yet despite its largely considered box office failure The Uninvited managed to earn Su-yeon “Best Director” at the Baek Sang Art Awards in 2004 as well as earning the triple prize award at the Fantasia Film Festival that same year. It’s curious then as to why she hasn’t made a anything since, because she’s achieved with this film what some of South Korea’s finest efforts have, and that’s in maintaining a stauncher and different approach that doesn’t conform to popular, established ideals. Literally translated the film’s original title 4 Inyong shiktak refers to a table of four, which in turn makes The Uninvited a fairly accurate summation; a title that’s initially ambiguous but makes perfect sense as a metaphorical device.
The film is initially difficult to pin down; more thriller than horror it wrestles with the human psyche during a tensely slow build up as its subject matter and deep psychological roots unfold. The Uninvited is all about states of repression that when opened up can lead to the true horror that lies within one’s own past. And so we have two central characters, Jung-won and Yun-jung, who would appear to be polar opposites: one is a level headed designer with a loving fiancée, while the other is a psychiatric patient who is trying to recover from a deeply personal and traumatic event. Lee Su-yeon does a great job in keeping their home lives separate, illustrating the social and climate differences so that we can develop a clear understanding of where these people come from. In a twist of fate however the story doesn’t so much come down to their social standing as much as it does their commonality in having lost a part of themselves, which ultimately makes the world close up around them. Seemingly normal lives are reduced to empty shells as these protagonists search for some kind of meaning as to how it all suddenly went wrong. The instability and fragile nature of the mind is dealt with to such a poignant degree that it strikes the ultimate fear amongst us, because in reality that is all we have to cling on to, to prove that as human beings that is what defines us all. The Uninvited, while being a slow film, spends some time in underpinning the main narrative by issuing spiritual, reflective and philosophical conversation; although it doesn’t tap into my aforementioned points in any great detail, preferring the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions, it nonetheless spices up its deliberate pace and fleshes out its human relations far better than we might have expected it to. Jung-won and Hee-eun’s rapidly declining relationship bears significant impact, whilst Yun-jung and her husband Moon-sub have already hit a point in theirs where recovery isn’t an option. The film takes a solid turn as it then hands trauma from one party to another.
In accompaniment The Uninvited stirs up an uncomfortable atmosphere through its use of disturbing imagery, made all the more unsettling due to the recurring use of children as ciphers. As with films such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance there’s a great sense of realism that punctuates these moments, and while they might not be anywhere near as graphic in terms of bloodshed they do hit nerves: one such scene toward the final act is shocking enough, just when you expect mercy to be provided via a quick cut away, when later on a character’s attempt to take their own life is shown in equally shocking fashion which recalls Peter Chan’s Going Home with its rag-doll physics. Furthermore ghostly images of dead children do more to elicit a reaction than had they been moving stiffly, while screeching or muttering. Art Director Jeon Eun-young and Cinematographer Jo Yeong-gyu instil an almost sterile, cold look to the picture; supplying a minimalist approach through slow panning or complete static shots whereby the environments serve enough purpose to readily identify their occupier’s situation, while the camera truly serves as a gateway, being more of a voyeur as it closely follows every movement. In addition we have blown out exteriors which Su-yeon marvellously juxtaposes against the drab interiors to signify an apocalyptic elegy. In this respect The Uninvited is for the most part an understated picture that as a whole relies on its visual flourishes and performances to aid the story along.
Speaking of which brings us to the main players. Jun Ji-hyun puts in a wonderfully understated performance that’s far removed from the insanely gurning yupki girl from Kwak Jae-young’s hugely successful comedy of 2001. In what is undoubtedly her most demanding role to date the young actress has the incredibly tough task of juggling her emotions. Her portrayal of Yun-jung is heartbreaking to say the least and it pains the viewer to see her sad, lonely figure go through life with such guilt and shame. To her testament Ji-hyun evenly balances her acting, never throwing herself into melodramatic fits or conforming to clichéd crazy-person tactics; her character’s breakdown is natural and believable, which is why she remains so memorable here. Likewise, Park Shin-yang puts in an equally subtle performance as the film’s lead. We’re seeing Jung-won from two angles, the first as a loving boyfriend and dedicated worker, the second a wrecked, mentally scared being who has found himself lost in life. There’s a great amount of sympathy to be generated from Shin-yang’s portrayal, and although he spends much of the first half aimlessly going from once place to the next it’s toward the revelation of his past that the actor suddenly brings an intense amount of pain that has for so long been subdued. Paired alongside Ji-hyun we have two very accomplished actors as highly depressing characters that somehow keep us enthralled, when they could so easily have had us reaching for the off button.
While The Uninvited is a very articulate piece of work, succeeding on most counts, it does threaten to exhaust itself past the ninety minute mark through a made up disease known as multiple ending syndrome. Just as we think the story can tie itself up nicely and offer a poignant denouement it goes on to add an extra thirty minutes. For the most part this works well enough, allowing the director to take supporting characters and see them through to a suitable end, while resolving certain plot points and forgoing almost all ambiguity. Certainly Yun-jung’s tragic life is made all the more desperate and wistful, which takes its toll on the viewer; likewise Jung-won’s character progressively deteriorates and come the final moments we’re left with a soul destroying experience that has soaked up any chance of hope for these people.
Like their entire collection to date Panik House release The Uninvited in a specially designed package, which they tout their best yet. It’s not really their best - Pinky Violence Collection wins hands down. Here we have a standard amaray case that comes with a card slip cover, or half a cover I should say. This features Ji-hyun’s embossed face, that when covering the amaray replicates the original poster; it’s nothing overly exciting but it’s different. Also worth noting is that the packaging lists the film as having a run time of 96 minutes, when in actual fact it runs for 123 minutes. Also included is a sticker of the poster cover.
The Uninvited is treated to an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, which aside from a heavy amount of aliasing, minor Edge Enhancement and some minor artefacts looks very nice indeed. The film’s palette has a deliberate muted tone and blown out whites which detaches it from a real world sensibility, along with saturation and a natural appliance of heavy grain; the transfer handles these remarkably well, along with providing nice flesh tones, deep blacks, though slightly boosted contrast levels. Detail is often superb, particularly during exterior shots that see plenty of cars and buildings, while interior shots are brought to life with equal amounts of care. There are signs of print damage in the form of specks and dust which appear early on in the film, but these are inherent problems that I never expect companies to fully clean up. Some of the screen shots included are admitedly drab, but shouldn't be considered an overall reflection of the transfer. I just took some dark shots to which compression hasn’t been kind.
Korean DD2.0, DD5.1 Surround and DTS are up for grabs here. I went with the excellent DTS option. The Uninvited uses sound greatly to benefit some of the more shocking scenes, though throughout it’s the ambience that is more so effectively channelled across the board, including Jang Yeong-gyu’s score, comprising of screeching pipes and rhythmic chimes that slowly unnerve the viewer. But the film also has plenty of quiet, reflective moments which rarely require huge sonics, making this track more successful during certain intervals.
Optional English subtitles are included. Panik House has once again adopted for a bright yellow font, which not all enthusiasts dig, but it does the job regardless, and a good one at that.
English language Audio Essay by Art Black Performed by Korean Film Licensor Ed Lee
Gargh, what the hell is this?!? Running for just thirty minutes of the film’s length this track has Ed Lee read out Art Black’s essay in the most bored, uncharismatic way possible. Never get someone to read notes; it’s not good listening to someone stumble and backtrack over words. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people turn off after five minutes. No offence to Ed, he’s just doing what he’s asked to. Black has apparently been writing about Asian cinema for quite some time and this essay is obviously a primers guide. There’s nothing here that any Asian enthusiast, particularly Korean ones don’t know already, but for those just starting out it proves to be decent as it discusses the rising success of Korean cinema and name drops a few successful hits, while referencing Hong Kong cinema also. The biggest problem is that this has nothing to do whatsoever with the production of the film it’s packaged with, just like most of Panik House’s commentaries to date. Moreover this is basically an extension of the essay we also get in the collection, which would have been better used as accompanying notes, rather than employ poor ol’ Ed to mull over it for half an hour.
Spanish Language Commentary with Jesus “Pelos” Olvera, Editor of Al Borde
Maybe some of our Spanish readers can tell me what he’s saying.
Behind-the-Scenes: The Making of The Uninvited
This comes as nine separate chapters presented on average video quality stock. These are Shattered Glass, Ceiling Collapses, Truck, Afternoon Tea, Don’t Drop the Baby, Rain, CAT Scan, Hysteria and The Couch. As you can imagine we see the filming behind each of these scenes, from set ups to the camera rolling. There’s a few smiles to be had as actors joke on set from time to time and overall there’s a decent amount of insight into how scenes are staged.
Reminiscence: An Interview with Jun Ji-hyun and Park Shin-yang (8.35)
The two actors sit side by side as they’re asked to explain what the film is about, along with character insights and arduous tasks that they had to perform. All in all this is very standard stuff filled the usual bunch of questions that the actors do well to deal with as they have the occasional laugh.
Abridged: The Uninvited Condensed (15.01)
Pointless? Yep. Why watch the whole film when you can save an hour and forty five minutes? That’s time to go out and play games or cook an extravagant meal. These things often pop up on Korean DVDs, usually as “best of clips” and their inclusion is often perplexing.
From Sketch to Screen: Story Board Comparison (16.54)
Director Lee Su-yeon introduces us to this piece that shows how her initial composition sketches were translated to film. This is an interesting feature because we’re actually guided through the story boards and scenes by Su-yeon, whereas usually we’re not offered such a luxury, and therefore it often makes the process of watching them a little less than satisfactory.
This is the original theatrical trailer culled from a not so good video source. It’s well edited and enticing and I think you should be safe in watching it prior to the feature itself.
Poster & Still Galleries
This section contains Posters & Promotional Art (5 pics) and Production Stills (47 pics)
Korean Horror: An Essay by Art Black
As mentioned previously, just why they’ve included this twice is beyond me. Alright they’re not exactly the same but basically they contain the same stuff. Certainly it works better in text form as a more leisurely means to take in a little of South Korea’s film history in horror. It touches upon Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle in 2001 and looks at productions since then, as well as America’s sudden interest in the genre that South Korea was presenting. The Uninvited gets a brief mention during a piece on licensing, before it finishes on Black’s take on mainstream influences.
Here we get biographies on Lee Su-yeon, Jun Ji-hyun, Park Shin-yang, Yu Seon and Park Won-sang. Ji-hyun gets the most pages, while the rest have some brief notes. There’s nothing extensive here, but enough factoids to please most.
This consists of three tracks: Grass-Cut Tree 1, Lullaby and Grass-Cut Tree 2. By selecting any one of these you’re treated to a piece of haunting music from the film that plays over the menu.
The Uninvited is not a standard horror film by any means. It’s an intelligent and heartbreaking deconstruction of people who have faced terrible acts in their lives. With a run time of over two hours it will surely test the patience of many viewers, and therefore it might not be the best material to sit through if you’re after something a little less lethargic. If you find that you need something a little more challenging then the film might just reward you. Panik House has done a great job in presenting the film on DVD, along with bringing us a fine selection of extras, with the exception - once more - of an exceedingly dull audio commentary and the ever-wrongly advertised production notes. I’d urge fans to check out DVD Pacific’s Customer Appreciation Sale through our affiliate link where this title can already be picked up for just $10.83!