First there was Black House (Japan), an adaptation of Yusuke(Crimson Labyrinth) Kishi’s novel. And now we have Black House (Korea), which is … also an adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The Japanese version was mannered and strange with many obvious directorial intrusions, and I wavered between liking it for that reason and finding it simply annoying. The Korean version is constructed more like a conventional “Western” thriller, with obvious shock cuts and musical stings, but it’s that much more approachable, and I suspect most people will think of it as the “better” film. You choose.
Curious how intra-Asian remakes work. The last time this happened was The Ring, which was filmed multiple times in both Japan and Korea, and jumped the ocean to the United States to kick off the cinematic J-horror boom there. Said boom has mostly fizzled at this point—The Grudge and Dark Water were only okay, and if there was anything after that I’m probably lucky I don’t remember it. I doubt Black House is getting the remake treatment Stateside, but from what I see it would face faces fewer cultural hurdles than, say, Akira. (And of course there was Oldboy, a Korean adaptation of a Japanese comic with no American remake forthcoming after all, thank goodness.)
The story hasn’t been changed much. A mild-mannered young man, Jeon (an appropriately nervy Hwang Jung-min, of A Bittersweet Life and Shiri) lands a new job as an insurance adjuster. He’s soft on the inside, something which gives his boss no end of sidelong amusement—for instance, whenever Jeon looks at whatever fraud case they’re working on and wonders how people can do such terrible things for the sake of a little money. His boss is more pragmatic: Fraud happens, and that there are sick people in the world isn’t so much the cause of it as it is an accompanying symptom.
One day Jeon gets a real doozy of a client. He’s a sheet-metal worker living in a house that looks like the kind of place John Doe from Seven would happily retire to, especially the basement. This place is literally on the wrong side of the tracks: it’s just past a railroad crossing with a broken safety gate, and you can bet your Elks pin this becomes useful (read: deadly) later on. Jeon talks to him for barely five minutes before blundering across the body of the man’s son, hanging from a lamp fixture. It’s suicide, right?
That’s what the cops say, but there’s something about this fellow that just makes Jeon’s nerves develop split ends. He shows up at the office every day, begging Jeon to approve the claim, despite the two-plus hour train ride each way. They eventually do pay out, much to Jeon’s consternation, and that compels him to begin digging into this man’s bizarre past. He finds a lot—but it’s nothing compared to what he finds out about the guy’s wife. If he was a damage case, there’s plenty of hints she helped make him one—and it isn’t long before she’s set out to make his life either very miserable or very short.
I mentioned before that the movie was constructed like and plays the same as the thrillers we’ve been getting Stateside for umpity-dozen years. It works, even if it’s thoroughly formulaic. We get the Pet in the Crosshairs Rule, which states that pets in a thriller / horror picture exist for no reason except to be gruesomely murdered as a warning to the protagonists. (Thriller, the killing is off-camera. Horror, on-camera.) And an Obligatory Backhanded Homage—this time, to Halloween, when Jeon and his girlfriend barricade themselves in a locker and he almost takes a knife to the eye through a slat in the door. And the Fakeout Double-Length Ending, where the killer isn’t really dead … and the movie tacks on an additional bloody struggle to the death, because one is never enough.
The other movie may have been that much stranger, but it was also that much more original—e.g., the creepy, almost subliminal sound effects that played whenever the metalworker character appeared on screen (which on closer inspection turned out to be the sound of shearing metal). Here, we have stuff like the WHOOMP! noise that today’s directors use to make us jump, William Castle-style, because they seem to feel modern audiences are incapable of being truly unnerved. If they are, then with evidence like this I say it’s for lack of trying.
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