Have you watched Constantine (2005) with the fabulous Keanu Reeves, The Ninth Gate (1999) by Roman Polanski, The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Exorcists (1972) when you were younger? I am sure you did. What do they have in common? Demons and the devil’s existence. Yes, it sounds terrifying; however, if you watched those films again today, they certainly wouldn’t be as scary. The subject of Satan and demons has been explored repeatedly in the Western cinema, particularly in the American movies; apart from the aforementioned films, there are a few more such productions out there, such as The Omen (1976), Rosmary’s Baby (1968), The Rite (2011), Devil (2010) or The Devil Inside (2012), which would definitely scare you out of your wits. According to Kelly J. Wyman (University of Missouri) “Hollywood’s Satans and demons echo medieval depictions of demons and Lucifer in form, appearance, and ways of interacting with humans. Although less frightening, pop culture’s view of Satan – even when he is treated humorously – is thus linked through movies to medieval religious beliefs.” When it comes to Asian cinema and its portrayal of the demons, there are several fiendish films out there, mostly produced by Japan: Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), Dark Water (2002), Ringu (1998), Kwaidan (1964)- just to name a few – but not necessary depicting aforesaid evil in the way that Western cinema does. That said, in 2015, a South Korean film director Jang Jae-hyun decided to surprise the domestic audience with a different type of a film; he made The Priests, which tells the story of two men of God: Kim (Kim Yunseok) and “the rebellious seminarian” Choi (Gang Dong-won), who try to perform a serious act of exorcism on a young girl, Young Shin (Park So-dam), apparently possessed by devilish spirits.
It all begins with a tragic car accident, when a senior priest tries to outcast a demon – which is trapped in a pig’s body – by taking it to a river; he never reaches his destination as he gets involved in the crash, in which he dies. Young Shin witnesses the collision and is unexpectedly controlled by the demon, which was previously ensnared in the animal’s body. What happens next is slightly predictable; were it not for a fast pace and a single original scene, The Priests would have become a poor remake of The Exorcist. The strong point of the film is the fact that it is a new kind of production on the Korean market and presents an interesting cultural syncretism. Most of the time, we associate the subject of exorcism with Christian Europe, so having the film action take place in the backstreets of the popular Myeong-dong in Seoul, and boasting with a narrative that includes an intense scene of shamanism (Muism) – an old Korean tradition within the religion of Shin – it all manages to slightly separate the film from The Exorcist’s storyline. The audience will notice that the greatest emphasis is placed on a very exotic rite of exorcism and foreign languages. Would I treat the film as a horror? Not really, I would rather see it as a thriller as there is more action than a feeling of fear in it.
The Priests became the dark horse of the Korean box office in the last quarter, probably because of the unusual (for the Korean cinema), mysterious and supernatural topic of the film, as well as due to the faultless performance from the renowned Kim Yoon-seok, whose acting career goes back to 1994. Yoon-seok finds himself in the unlikely role of a priest and channels genuine acting abilities under the aegis of the charismatic and strong-minded character of Father Kim. There is no denying that Gang Dong-won perfectly portrayed the contumacious Choi; furthermore, Park So-dam’s depiction of Shin plays the seminal part in The Priests, with her creepy ghostly voices and shaved head she – at times- incandesces the silver screen.
The film is based on Jang Jae-hyun’s award-winning short film 12th Assistant Deacon, and as mentioned before, the filmmaker, without a doubt, derived a few ideas – for both films – from the American classic The Exorcist. In spite of the fact that it earned over 34 millions dollars, I do not believe that the production would have been popular among The Exorcists’ fans; that said, some of the film-goers might think that it’s a decent thriller – only if they had not seen the 1972 film. Since I saw The Exorcist – which I loved – I was slightly disappointed with The Priests and its lack of originality. However, the film is fun to watch if you like a bit of thrill. Of course, there will always be crazy and fearless Catholic priests to perform an exorcism, or another Arnold Schwarzenegger to save “humanity from the ultimate disaster”. No matter how similar these genre films are, the characters of Satan and demons are definitely intriguing to the audience; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be as many films about evil in existence.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © 2016 CJ Entertainment