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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite a full feature, not quite an anthology."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "Epitaph" is one of the busiest horror films I've seen lately, starting in 1979 before flashing back to 1942, offering up ghosts and serial killers and obsessions that may or may not be connected in ways other than happening in close proximity to each other. It's got its moments, some of them excellent, but not enough to forgive a somewhat weak story.

Or three stories, as the case may be. Though the film starts with an elderly Dr. Park Jung-nam (Jeon Mu-song) delivering a lecture about a WWII-era surgery, he only figures prominently in one of the stories that unfolded at Anseng Hospital in 1942: As a young intern (Jin Goo) betrothed to a Japanese girl he only vaguely remembers from childhood, he's assigned to assist Dr. Kim In-young (Kim Bo-kyeong) in the morgue, where he becomes obsessed with a beautiful Jane Doe found drowned in a nearby river. Elsewhere in the hospital, Dr. Lee Soo-in (Lee Don-kyu) finds himself bonding with Asako (Ko Joo-yeon), a silent five-year-old girl who is the sole survivor of an automobile accident that claimed both her parents (and who may be haunted literally as well as figuratively). As if that's not enough, In-young - who aside from being a coroner is also the wife of Dr. Kim Dong-won (Kim Tae-woo), Asia's most brilliant neurosurgeon - is also being consulted on what appears to be a serial killer attacking officials of the occupying Japanese forces.

Much of the trouble with Epitaph is its structure. It's sort of an anthology film, with the three stories mostly told in self-contained chunks, although there is a fair amount of overlap between them - too much for them to be cleverly linked but basically separate, but not enough for the three to merge into one story. It's a structure that works fine for a lot of more conventional dramas, but fantasies require the audience to consider rules other than those of human interaction, which don't always line up here: What we learn about ghosts in story A doesn't necessarily apply to story B, even though they're otherwise tied too closely for that.

That the stories don't mesh so well is unfortunate, because brothers Jeong Sik and Jeong Beom-ski have the ingredients for a couple good movies here: I love the wartime hospital setting, with its built-in tensions and an eeriness born of blackouts and omnipresent death. The implications that Jung-nam's foster mother (a hospital director) was close with the Japanese before the war are interesting. And while none of the plots are breathtakingly original, they're each a solid basis for a good story.

The Jeongs also have style to spare. Every single part of the hospital looks perfect, functional while still maximizing the inherent creepiness. Nothing about the movie looks cheap, including a set-piece or two that take the characters outside the claustrophobic halls of the main setting. They've also got a knack for coming up with good jump scenes; even when the story seems somewhat opaque, there's a moment or two that takes the audience by surprise even if it maybe really shouldn't.

They also get good performances from the cast, although few of them jump out. Kim Bo-kyeong and Jeong Jin-an make two of the biggest impressions as women of intelligence and authority who wield their gifts in very different ways - Kim's In-young is professional but pleasant, while Jeong's hospital director is clearly the type who got to be elderly and in charge by never giving an inch to anyone. There's a nice warmth between Lee Don-kyu and Ko Joo-yeon in their segment, too. Jin Goo doesn't make that strong an impression, unfortunately; while the character is supposed to feel uncomfortable and out of place, there's not a great deal to connect him to the older version played by Jeon Mu-song.

At the festival, "Epitaph" played right after "Beautiful Sunday", and wound up having one big thing in common with it's fellow Korean film: As with "Beautiful Sunday", the audience was coming out of "Epitaph" trying to figure out what it was all about. Too bad; they could have been coming out gushing if the story had been organized a little better.

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originally posted: 08/15/08 23:12:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 24-Feb-2009



Directed by
  Jeong Beom-sik
  Jeong Sik

Written by
  Jeong Beom-sik
  Jeong Sik

  Jin Ku
  Kim Bo-kyeong
  Kim Tae-Woo

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