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House of the Disappeared
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by Jay Seaver

"Decades of different ghost stories under one roof."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I do rather love it when all of the pieces of a ghost story, or any story that plays with time, wind up all fitting together in a way that's not just obligatory, but clever, and earns some emotional points on the way as well. The makers of this Korean film has a bit of a head start, having remade Alejandro Hidalgo's 2013 Venezuelan version, but it's just as likely you'll get a mess from that as something this tight.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yunjin) was convicted of the murders of her husband Chul-joong (Jo Jae-yun) and son Hye-jo on 11 November 1992, though the body of the boy was never found. Twenty-five years later, suffering from what is presumably terminal laryngeal cancer, she is given home imprisonment, allowed to serve out the last days of her sentence in the now run-down house where it all happened, but what she discovered back in 1992 and neighborhood priest Choi (Ok TaecYoon) - her only visitor - is just finding out is that the house is haunted, apparently on a twenty-five year cycle, with 11/11 just a few days away.

I missed the original The House at the End of Time when it played the festival a few years back, so I can't tell just how much of the script here comes from Hidalgo and how much from Jang Jae-hyun, but though Jang and director Lim Dae-woong have a few stumbles in the 1992 period - the presence of a second son in early scenes telegraphs a lot of what will play out in kind of worn fashion, and the filmmakers are perhaps a little casual in how they present and use the fact that the two sons are from two husbands - but it's an impressive example of a ghost story that can keep piling more on without it seeming like excess by the time things are done, and they're able to create variety without it seeming like randomness. They're especially good during the finale, when things initially look like they'll get too loose, but instead snap into place while still having room to be surprising or unconventional.

Aside from being well-built, it's got a few pretty decent scares as well. It's not close to all jump scares, but the filmmakers know when is okay to give the puzzle-oriented stuff a bit of a kick. There's a fun sort of inversion going on at times, as the people who supposedly know about the paranormal occasionally get more freaked out than Mi-hee, and a very good slow build of Chul-joong's alcoholism and anger as a threat that is just as real and perhaps more tangible than that of the ghosts. Lim and company also do a lot of great things with the house itself - the first glimpse of it in 1992 is intimidating, with the place shrouded in woods, while the exterior is faded and the trees withered in 2017. Inside, the design feels like it has evolved with its various tenants, in that while it seems like a typical suburban home, it has the bones of a Japanese general's residence, with the jump from 1992 to 2017 notable in how the removal of the Christian crosses that were in almost every room seems to loom just as large as the way everything homey is now gone.

There's also a nice performance by Yunjin Kim. I'm not sure whether or not she's still the best-known Korean actress in America - Lost was a few years ago, and she never did much English-language work outside of that - but she handles acting through old-age makeup for half of the movie better than most, and gives her character a believably cranky present while tracking a loving but tough woman through the past with aplomb; she's the mom that just handles things without a whole lot of fanfare until it's believably too much. She's good enough to easily overshadow both her main co-stars, as Jo Jae-yun makes Chul-joong a small man even as he's threatening, and Ok TaecYeon seems a bit miscast as Priest Choi, a bit too much the youthful boy-band member for the film's needs.

Even if it has those stumbles, there's still enough some genuine delight in how it sticks the landing, with the filmmakers not content to just have the finale feel right enough to excuse what doesn't make sense the way many ghost stories to, but also come together in an almost defiant way. That's a rare treat from this genre, making "House of the Disappeared" especially impressive.

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originally posted: 07/22/17 01:18:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Dae-woong Lim

Written by
  Jae-Hyeon Jang

  Yunjin Kim
  Taec Yeon Ok

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