Exhuma Poster

Exhuma (2024) Review

South Korean genre master Jae-hyun Jang is back with Exhuma, his first film since Svaha: The Sixth Finger, back in 2019. It’s been well received in its home country, where it’s currently the top grossing film of the year, with more than twice the take of the film in second place, Wonka. As the film, like its characters, venture across the Pacific to the US, will the reception be as enthusiastic?

Two shamen, Hwarim (Kim Go-eun, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Monster) and Bong gil (Lee Do-hyun, Sweet Home, Unexpected You) are called to Los Angeles to help a wealthy Korean family that is being plagued by what is referred to as “Graves Calling”, ghostly visitations of every firstborn in the bloodline.

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The case is more complicated than expected, and they call in a leading geomancer or feng shui master Kim Sang Deok (Choi Min-sik, Lucy, I saw the Devil) and an undertaker Ko Young-geun (Yu Hae-jin, Space Sweepers, The Pirates) whom we previously saw dealing with a spectral grandmother. She was visiting her family because her false teeth were missing, and without them, she couldn’t eat in the afterlife.

But when the foursome’s work brings them to the unmarked grave of the client’s great-grandfather on a sinister mountain, and an odd request from the client, however, Kim refuses to proceed, saying something is wrong and this could get them all killed. Unfortunately for all concerned, he’s convinced to change his mind.

For a film that runs two and a quarter hours, Exhuma surprisingly doesn’t feel long and manages to avoid dragging. There is enough suspense, and enough going on to keep things interesting even during the first act when the plot is just starting to take shape. Jae-hyun Jang knows just how to pace the script, dropping a bit of information here, a bit of ghostly activity there, to keep the viewer paying attention.

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Through most of Exhuma’s first hour, Jae-hyun Jang keeps things on an effectively slow burning course. From what may be a simple matter of appeasing an unhappy ancestor, he layers on more and more complications until it becomes obvious that whatever is happening isn’t so simple. And indeed it isn’t simple as we find a connection to the Japanese occupation of Korea, at which point the pace picks up considerably as this becomes the starting point for another set of revelations. And these end up going well beyond anything the characters, or the viewers, may have been expecting.

The film’s characters actually handle these developments in a matter of fact manner. There’s never a point when somebody doubts any of it, which feels a little odd for a modern day film. But excellent performances from the entire cast help the viewer take things as seriously as the characters do. They treat it all as part of the job, and it’s hard not to share that attitude as what begins as a seemingly straightforward relocation of the deceased becomes progressively more sinister.

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Granted, some viewers may not like the shift in tone that sees the film’s second half dealing with what looks like a demonic samurai who can turn into a fireball and be fought with a pickaxe. I quite liked it and thought it made for an exciting final showdown and added a bit of action to a story that otherwise tends to concentrate on atmosphere and rituals, both of which cinematographer Lee Mo-gae (Tale of Two Sisters, Emergency Declaration) gets plenty of milage out of, especially several night scenes at a small monastery.

Overall, Exhuma is an excellent tale of the supernatural that does a fine job of building suspense and a sense of dread. While there are a couple of nice jump scares, Jae-hyun Jang relies on the story and the cast’s performances to drive the film, and it pays off with one of the better recent K horror films. It will be interesting to see what direction the director takes the genre in next.

Well Go USA releases Exhuma in Los Angeles today, March 15th, before opening it across all of North America on March 22nd.

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