Exhuma: Korean shamanism and colonial past explored in supernatural horror thriller

Jang Jaehyun, “Exhuma” (2024)

It starts innocently enough when a newborn boy contracts a mystery illness and ends up in intensive care in hospital – but from there, “Exhuma” builds gradually and tirelessly into a supernatural horror film that explores the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan, and in particular Korea’s status as a Japanese colony during the early 20th century. Shaman Hwarim (Kim Goeun) and her assistant Bonggil (Lee Dohyun) are employed by a wealthy Korean American family to investigate and identify what is ailing its youngest member who has not stopped crying since he was born. Hwarim deduces that the child has been cursed by his vengeful ancestor so the child’s father, Park Jiyong (Kim Jaecheol), gives the green light to exhume and rebury the ancestor, his grandfather, to a different site to lift the curse. Hwarim enlists the help of feng shui expert Kim Sangdeok (Choi Minsik) and mortician Ko Yeonggeun (Yoo Haejin) in locating and moving the coffin. Kim becomes concerned that the body has been buried in a remote mountain location near the North Korean border, but Hwarim assures him that she will perform a special ritual to avert any harm during the exhumation.

The exhumation goes ahead and Kim, Ko, Hwarim and Bonggil take the coffin to a local hospital for storage – but not before one of the gravediggers is spooked by an unusual snake and kills it. While the coffin is stored at the hospital, a local employee opens the coffin for a peek and the vengeful spirit flies out. Whooshing all the way to Los Angeles, the spirit targets and kills Park Jiyong and both of his parents, and is just about to kill the baby when Kim, having discovered that the spirit is on the loose, gets permission from a senior Park family member in South Korea to cremate the coffin and orders it torched. Immediately the curse is lifted and the baby survives.

Everything seems fine until Kim is contacted by the gravedigger who killed the snake that he has been suffering hallucinations. Kim revisits the grave site and is astonished to discover a huge coffin standing upright in the grave beneath where Park Jiyong’s grandfather had been buried. Kim enlists the help of Ko, Hwarim and Bonggil to remove the giant coffin and the four take it to a mountain temple, where Hwarim learns about the mysterious monk Gisune who long ago provided the latitude and longitued coordinates for the gravesite of Park Jiyong’s grandfather.

From this point on, the film devolves into blockbuster horror mode as the occupant of the second coffin goes on a rampage through a piggery, possesses Bonggil and turns into a flying ball of fire. We learn that this ghoul had been part of a Japanese invasion force in the Korean peninsula some 400-plus years ago, and that the key to its defeat is a metal pole stuck in the gravesite. The pole serves as a metaphor for Japan’s attempts to conquer Korea over past centuries and its control of the peninsula in the early 20th century.

The film does well in demonstrating what Korean shamans do and what rituals they perform and why. The main actors do excellent work as intermediaries dealing with the end of life and beyond, and Ko especially is adept at providing comic relief to help ease tension – of which there is plenty! Structured in a series of chapters, which immerse the viewer fully into its action, the film proceeds steadily, pushing the plot along yet also providing relevant history and culture that embellish and help explain aspects of the plot. The cinematography is good, portraying the beauty and sinister quality of the mountain landscapes.

However creepy and sinister the supernatural elements in “Exhuma” are, nothing prepares Kim, Ko, Hwarim and Bonggil for the real and horrific discoveries they make in uncovering the grave of Park Jiyong’s traitor grandfather. Themes of family history, betrayal of one’s bloodlines and nation, and setting aside personal, selfish motives to save community are present. It is noteworthy that at the beginning of the film, Kim, Ko, Hwarim and Bonggil appear mostly motivated by money in their respective vocations; but by the end of the film, they have all been transformed by their experiences and have come to esteem more abstract and less materialistic values.