An aging doctor receives news that the remote hospital where he practiced in 1942 is being torn down. His memories of four days at Anseng Hospital, when a beautiful corpse bewitched him, a young girl's survivor guilt brings about her own death and the serial killings of Japanese soldiers turns to one of Anseng's own, have haunted him his whole life and are relived as an "Epitaph."
While the influence of other filmmakers (Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch) is obvious, this Korean horror tale is truly something different. It tells three main tales, yet is not an omnibus. It begins with a flashback to some pretty gory brain surgery, yet is not a gore film. And it features ghosts and plenty of scenes in an autopsy lab, yet in the end, the film leaves one feeling melancholy, rather than horrified. The film has been visually plotted (watch for the use of mirrors throughout), using stylized imagery to assist in its story telling (a series of tableaux depict a marriage, a young girl and her mother stand within what is revealed to be the mother's mirror frame). But while the film is more than the standard wet, dark-haired woman of too many Asian horrors, the loose overlapping of the stories and the exhaustive nature of the otherwise intriguing final tale hold "Epitaph" back.
The directors have a strong grasp of period, using sepia-toned 'documentary' footage to introduce us to Anseng, a rural hospital which has been strikingly realized by the production team. Their first story, in which Jung-Nam Park (Goo Jin) becomes obsessed with the defrosting corpse of a suicide, seems predictable until its final revelation. The second story begins at the end and then abruptly begins at the beginning (there is some confusion in how the directors pull their four day timeline around itself) and is the most genuinely creepy, yet ends with the most humanistic touch. A nighttime visitation to young Asako (Joo-Yeon Ko) seems sprung from the mind of David Lynch, so odd are the creatures facial movements that accompany its inhuman sounds. Cinematographer Yun Nam-joo creates a surreal flashback with lighting within a car interior which gives the scene an otherworldliness. Lighting tricks are less successful when a doctor comes to realize his surgeon wife no longer has a shadow and one too many switcheroos and flashbacks not only make this sequence confusing, but make one question understanding what came before. A final coda which returns to the 1979 version of Jung-Nam Park restores order, somewhat.
"Epitaph" ("Gidam") is a visually splendid film, but its intertwined stories needed more definition (a short staff meeting would have gone a long way towards establishing the principals). Music is clearly borrowed from other films, most notably "Psycho's" shrieking violins. Still, the horror genre is a difficult one to break new ground in and "Epitaph" at least has a unique tone. It's like a ride on an antique carousel that houses dark secrets.
The DVD includes chapter selections, subtitles, a stills gallery and very effective trailer.
Robin gives "Epitaph" a B+.
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