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'Bunshinsaba' strikes at forced conformity

2004/08/03 | 238 views | Permalink | Source

In a homogeneous society, it is often dangerous to be different from others. People come under enormous pressure to follow the widely held beliefs, fashions and lifestyle pursued by a majority of society. Straying from this perceived normalcy, or collective uniformity, invites a severe backlash.
"Bunshinsaba", opening this Thursday, is a horror flick that attempts to explore a dark side of the human psyche - an inexplicable fear of being alienated from other community members and a cruel tendency to punish those who do not follow the unwritten, yet powerful rules of conformity.

Yoo-jin (Lee Se-eun) is a high school girl who moves from Seoul to a remote village. She leads a terrible life at her new school because of constant harassment and bullying by classmates.


In a desperate bid to escape the traumatizing experience and get back at the school bullies, Yoo-jin chants "Bunshinsaba", an incantation that is supposed to facilitate communication with a spirit. The next day, her tormentors mysteriously begin to die. One girl commits suicide by lighting her face on fire while it is wrapped in a plastic bag covered with paint thinner. Then another girl does the same. In an effort to dodge this dreadful death, a third girl tries to escape from the village, only to be killed by a car on the street.

Meanwhile, the school's new art teacher Eun-ju (Kim Gyu-ri) unintentionally scares the students in her first class. When calling roll, she sees a student in seat No. 29 and calls her name, Kim In-suk (Lee Yu-ri), but the girl has long been dead, and all the students can see is an empty desk.

Due to the mysterious deaths, the entire village is gripped by horror and hysteria. The elders convene a meeting and conclude that Yoo-jin's presence is causing the tumult. They decide she has to leave.

But the elders are hiding a dirty secret. About 30 years before, In-suk and her mother had moved to the village, and something terrible happened to them because they were "different".

The film draws much of its symbolism from witch hunts in the West. Innocent (and often beautiful) women are ostracized and victimized by the villagers and the collective punishment involves fire - hammering home the historic fact that women charged with witchcraft were burned alive at the stake.

From the dawn of the Renaissance until 1700, hysteria over witches possessed Europe, and thousands of people, mostly women, were executed on the basis of "proofs" or "confessions" of witchcraft obtained by torture.

Some may wonder how relevant witch hunts are for a Korean audience. In fact, the theme comes across as universal: innocent people are victimized by the prejudice of a society intent on enforcing uniformity. While Western witch hunts have a strong religious background, Koreans feel strong pressure from peers and society at large as a result of the collective mindset that encourages blind conformity.

Other symbolism, relating to the name of the village, "Inhwa", also deserves mention. In Korean, "inhwa" has two meanings: harmony in society, and ignition. In conflict with the benign meaning of the name, the residents are deeply divided and suspicious of each other and readily attack anyone showing a hint of being different.

The second meaning underscores the fact that fire is a key element of this victimization-and-revenge drama.

The main character Yoo-jin's very large eyes are another notable element. In one scene, a school bully taunts her about them: "Be careful about your eyes, girl, because I'm worried they may pop right out of your head".

Eyes usually refer to an individual perspective - the way people see things. The question raised here is whether we see things correctly with our own eyes. Showing us the twisted minds of villagers, the movie suggests that it is difficult to have a neutral perspective when prejudice is running high against people who are different.

But some of the movie's attempts to raise these meaningful issues in a Korean setting may seem a stretch. For instance, villagers are seen donning masks when they join in collective attacks, something that reminds the audience of the Ku Klux Klan, but that lacks historical references in Korea.

Another problem is that too many genres are mixed together in "Bushinsaba": school girls, alienation, witch hunts, revenge, and ghosts. Some of these cinematic devices come from Korean cinema's rapidly evolving horror genre. When the film tackles the troubles befalling school girls it illustrates the systemic failure of a Korean education system that discourages originality. But this subject has become overused.

Director Ahn Byung-ki, who is avowedly devoted to the horror genre, made his directorial debut with "Nightmare" in 2000, followed by another horror film, Phone in 2002. "Bunshinsaba" was the closing film of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival last month at Pucheon, Gyeonggi Province. He said in a recent press preview that he focused on making it a traditional horror film.

Female ghosts in the film seem too traditional, however. Even though the characters toy with upscale mobile phones fitted with digital cameras, the ghosts are still stuck with pathetically outmoded hairstyles and fashions, dating back to the now legendary "Home of Legends", a weekly horror television show featuring mostly long-haired female ghosts clad in the white robes of the Joseon Dynasty.

It is understandable that some female ghosts cannot afford luxury brand clothes. But is it so difficult to find a hairstyle other than long hair? True, it did scare people 20 years ago, but this trademark "scary" hairstyle is obviously out of fashion.

Interestingly, the film's subject - fire - is untraditional in a way. Horror films are usually released during the summer, as moviegoers want something that gives them chills to beat the heat. In the unprecedented sultry weather that has engulfed the nation recently, watching a film filled with fiery images may be really scary (and scarier yet if the theater's air-conditioner doesn't work).

By Yang Sung-jin

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