DIRECTED BY: Young Nam Ko
FEATURING: Kim Young-ae, Lee Ki-seon, Yoon Il-bong
PLOT: A Korean housewife believes that their new maid is having an affair with her husband; is it all in her imagination, or does it have something to do with the mysterious shaman’s doll the strange girl carries around everywhere?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A rare Eighties horror from South Korea, recently “rediscovered” and released on Blu-ray by Mondo Macabro, Suddenly is not quite a lost classic (and not especially weird by our standards), but it is a solid psychological horror/drama with a unique focus on female sexual insecurity.
COMMENTS: Suddenly in the Dark is unusual not merely because it’s female-centered, but because it revolves around a very particular female anxiety—the fear that a wife’s slowly fading beauty will lead her husband to abandon her for a younger mate. The specialization of this obsession is a fertile soil for the movie to explore a broader and more universal theme of paranoia, with lots of different textures. Seon-hee’s fears may be totally unfounded, or they may be only partly true; she might be losing her mind due to out-of-control suspicions arising from neglect by her workaholic husband, or she might be the victim of a supernatural conspiracy to take her spouse from her and destroy the family structure. The audience is kept off balance about whom they should fear: Seon-hee, the paranoid wife, or Mi-ok, the seemingly innocent young maid who carries a bundled-up shaman’s doll everywhere. There are enough hints of supernatural agency—such as the appearance of a slide depicting the frowning doll in the lepidopterist’s presentation before the totem actually appears in the story—to make the audience wonder if the source of the disorder is witchcraft, insanity, or gaslighting.
Mi-ok’s coquettish expressions are good, finding the right guise of uncertainty midway between genuine simplicity and a cunning mask. The younger girl is frequently shown standing above the wife in the frame, on the balcony looking down on her older counterpart, to emphasize her recent ascendancy in the household. Her body is exploited—she has frequent nude scenes and upskirt shots—but the twist is that she’s the object of the female gaze, not the male. The husband barely gives the girl a second glance; it’s the wife’s eyes that linger on her exposed flesh, burning not with lust but with envy.
If you favor the use of a fractured camera to depict the disintegration of the female mind, you’re in luck: it seems like about ten percent of the film is shot through a kaleidoscope. Once, a kaleidoscopic dream is superimposed on a image of Seon-hee fitfully sleeping, a great effect. Other shots are distorted by the simple but effective trick of affixing a thick water glass to the lens, sometimes adding a green and/or red filter to the mix. The result is a disorienting visual mix where significant objects—the doll—appear rotating inside a shard swirling in a morass of psychedelic colors. Mixed with the female paranoia, the colorfully cockeyed visuals give the film a distinct giallo feel, with a Korean flair (a character descended from the “Sea God’s grandmother” is a distinctly non-European element). The ending is too literal for my tastes, but features plenty of cathartic destruction. Suddenly in the Dark never made its way past Korea ‘s borders in its initial run, but it makes us wonder what other minor treasures may be hiding in the vaults of cinema’s outer rim.
An interview with the producer in the extras reveals that a remake is planned. The film itself is heavily influenced by the 1960 Korean drama/thriller The Housemaid, in which a seductive maid disrupts the balance of a happy family.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Wow, this one is wild! A colorful, psychedelic supernatural shocker from Korea, this stylish offering is a hugely enjoyable mind twister that assaults the viewer with a seemingly endless variety of creative visuals that turn its seemingly routine story into something totally fresh and unpredictable.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)