The Uninvited (2003) (DVD)

There is more to this world than is safe to know.

Korean films have really gained popularity in recent years. Movie snobs everywhere, always on the search for something new and exciting, have sought out Korean works. From the ones that I’ve seen, it appears that a lot of Korean filmmakers have somehow tapped into the winning formula of combining big thrills with having something to say. This means viewers get to enjoy explosive action or chilling horror while also walking away with themes, symbols and ideas to discuss afterward.

Check out that formula at work in The Uninvited, courtesy of writer-director Su-yeon Lee. Here, you’ll find ghostly frights galore, but you’ll also find an intense look at some characters with some deep personal traumas. So lock the door, turn off all the lights, crawl into a corner, and listen…

While on the way home one night, Jung-won (Shin-yang Park) sees two little girls apparently asleep on the subway. He later learns they weren’t asleep, but dead—murdered and left there by an uncaring parent. If that weren’t troubling enough, he then starts seeing these girls in his own home, finding them sitting at his kitchen table, and hearing their sweet little voices calling out to him from the shadows. Convinced he’s crazy, Jung-won seeks out a psychiatrist. There, he meets another of the doc’s patients, Yun (Ji-hyun Jun, My Sassy Girl). After a few chance encounters, Jung-won discovers that she can see the dead girls too. She agrees to help Jung-won explore why the girls appear before him, leading him back to some buried childhood memories. However, doing so means Yun will have to confront the terrors of her own past as well.

Movie monsters come in all shapes and sizes. There are the classic Universal monsters wandering around big, gloomy castles and moonlit forests. There’s Kong, followed later by Godzilla and all the giant bugs and critters of the atomic age. There are the disfigured yet somehow still human slashers of the ’70s and ’80s, chasing horny teens through small towns and summer camps. And along the way, brain-munching zombies have crawled from their graves, serial killers have seemed cool and charming on the surface, and outer space has revealed itself to not be a vacuum, but supplier of endless evils.

So, is there any movie monster that our new millennium can call its own? That would the scary little kid. The concept is nothing new, of course, dating back to stuff like The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Shining and a whole bunch of other examples I’m too lazy to list. But thanks to the one-two punch of Ringu and its American remake/rip-off The Ring, the scary little kid has reached the upper heights of movie monsterdom. The typical image is that of a little girl dressed all in white with long, stringy black hair covering her face, but in recent years there’s been an onslaught of fright flicks with all sorts of creepy kids as antagonists.

Why have creepy kids resonated with audiences? Perhaps they represent a fear of youth—that is, a disconnection between adults and their children: parents not being able to understand what their kids are thinking, not getting the music they listen to, not knowing where they go when they’re off with friends, etc. Perhaps it’s an irony thing, with children appearing sweet and innocent on the outside, while secretly hiding their mischievous, troublesome true selves. After all, how many parents over the years have jokingly (or perhaps not) referred to their kids as “those little devils?”

All this is interesting because of how the ghostly kids are used in The Uninvited. Although their presence is somewhat malevolent, they aren’t monsters in a traditional sense, chasing down our heroes and unleashing supernatural mischief. Instead, they’re more of a catalyst. The ghosts’ appearance, ghoulish though it may be, kicks off a series of events that has the characters confronting their own pasts—the real horrors are the ones in their own psyches. In the latter half of the film, the spooks stay in the shadows, and the gloom onscreen comes from flashbacks to the main characters’ own pasts, which are just as creepy as any ethereal kid could ever be.

This is a dense film. It requires viewers to pay strict attention, and then rewards them for doing so. Although the supernatural elements of the plot are strong ones, this is a psychological thriller at heart, more about the human characters. Their own lives haunt them more effectively than the ghostly children ever could. To pull this off, though, it means we must spend a lot of time with the characters, and really get to know them, so when the big revelations come, they have the proper emotional weight. So, at times, The Uninvited resembles more of a standard drama than it does a supernatural creep-fest, with detailed looks into the characters’ lives and relationships.

Shin-yang Park does a fine job as the lead here. He plays troubled and worried without ever overdoing it. Then, later in the film when the time finally comes for him to break down, he pulls it off, but still without going completely over the top. It’s a grounded, believable performance. Ji-hyun Jun gets top billing here, and for good reason. Her character is the most mentally troubled one here, and she’s called upon to run the gamut of tormented emotions, and she does it well.

The picture quality looks just fine, making the most of the film’s dominant brown and gold colors. The Dolby Digital audio, in its original Korean, is even better, bringing a lot of smaller sounds out of the rear speakers just when we need to hear them. This is especially effective during the scary ghostly scenes, naturally.

For extras, the first featurette on the disc is a “you are there” documentary about the making of the film, featuring raw footage shot on set, with little narration or interruption, allowing you to see the actors and crew in their element. The second featurette contains interviews with the two stars, in which they discuss the film and acting in general. The commentary is an article about the history of Korean horror films, read aloud and not really corresponding with what’s on screen. It concludes about 30 minutes into the movie, leaving the viewer thinking a lot more could be said about the subject. The second commentary is in Spanish. I’m afraid I don’t speak the language, but because this track concludes at the same 30 minute mark as the English commentary, I’m guessing it’s the same article. Then there’s an “abridged” version of The Uninvited, which attempts to scale the entire movie down into just a few minutes. It’s a curious exercise in film editing, and should then be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in that subject. It does skip over several important plot points, as expected, so it’s not that effective of a re-telling. Finally, the DVD comes with a collectible Uninvited sticker, so you can put it on the inside of your locker and be the coolest kid in school.

Horror fans are a notoriously demanding bunch, often expecting a lot from their favorite genre. Some will appreciate the meditative drama at the heart of The Uninvited. But those who prefer “roller coaster ride” horror with shocks and slayings around every corner might find themselves checking their watches a few times, wondering when the next big scare will happen.

The Uninvited is an interesting and unusual use of the scary little kid, the number one movie monster of the new millennium. It all has the gloom and doom you want from a film like this, and it has a dark, heavy drama to go with it. It’s not a fun, “popcorn” movie at all, but if you’re in the mood for something well off the beaten path, give it a try.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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