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‘Exhuma’ review: A well-meaning occult horror marred by its structure

Lé Baltar

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‘Exhuma’ review: A well-meaning occult horror marred by its structure

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

Despite the flaws in execution, 'Exhuma' remains a delight to watch

Spoilers ahead.

In Letterboxd fashion, Exhuma, the folkloric thriller written and directed by Jang Jae-hyun, would most likely receive a three-star rating, and aptly so, because the more you dig into the film, the more you excavate the strange, if not meandering, routes it pursues to build toward suspense, which pays off at certain points, until it loses its force.

Columbia Pictures

The story begins with shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and partner Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) trying to lift a mysterious curse tormenting the first-born of Park Ji-yong (Kim Jae-cheol), who belongs to a well-to-do Korean-American family. Hwa-rim soon figures out that a resentful ancestral spirit is behind the curse, known as a “grave’s call.” She then enlists the help of master geomancer Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) and his assistant Yeong-geun (Yoo Hae-jin) to exhume the ancestor’s body and relocate it to somewhere more peaceful, only to discover that it is buried in an ominous site near the border between South and North Korea. Upon exhumation, the group conjures the vindictive spirit and other dark forces at the expense of Hwa-rim’s client.

Person, Wristwatch, Skin
Columbia Pictures

After its release, Exhuma has now become South Korea’s top grossing film of 2024, especially in Asian countries. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the country’s previous successes at the box office with genre films. Exhuma follows a trail of exorcism movies that Korean cinema boasts, like Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) or Jang’s last two features The Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019), and the film certainly takes advantage of the genre’s tropes, while toying with cross-cultural beliefs and the strained history between Korea and Japan, but to mixed effect. 

On the one hand, it works because it affords the film enough foundation to arrive at a pretty compelling message between what is spiritual and material, between what is imagined and not. And the film is at its best when its characters perform the rituals, chiefly exhibiting how captivating Kim Go-eun is in how she allows her character to simply just flow through her — a perfect vessel, as one might say. Lee Do-hyun, now starring in his first huge role in a feature film, also delivers quite convincing work, particularly when the vengeful spirit takes over his body. In some ways, the plotting also challenges the viewer’s credulity by leading its characters to dig the same grave many times over, only to mine further danger.

Yet, this narrative device, on the other hand, is also what causes the film to lose its steam. It dwells too much on plot twists that it eclipses the suspense altogether. For a work that is supposed to keep you guessing, it has this tendency to overload you with too much information, but somehow failing to substantiate why the repeated digging needs to happen in the first place, or how one plot point leads to the next. Why does the veteran geomancer have to keep coming back to the grave and do all that, beyond mere curiosity?

Soil, Clothing, Coat
Columbia Pictures

Given this convenient technique, one then begins to notice how the film pulls the strings and how it ends up being repetitive instead of serving as a way to unearth directions that are way more interesting. More than anything, Exhuma is marred by its five-act structure, impeding not only its tone and pace but its sheer will to deliver. And by the time one reaches the final stretch, it feels like some details only unfold the way they do out of mere orchestration and tolerance rather than meaningful connections. After all the build-ups and excesses, one waits for the film to peak, but it never really gets there. 

Adult, Male, Man

The attempt to look gory also doesn’t translate that much because the supernatural forces don’t really feel as terrifying as one might expect them to be. If anything, the film induces more tension when it focuses on the incidents that happen prior to the supposed payoffs. Choi Min-sik, most notable for his turn in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), shines in these moments, like how his character displays anxiety when the group decides to push through with the excavation, or even how the viewers absorb a certain level of apprehension when the coffin is transferred to another place, as if the spirit is trailing them too.

Despite the flaws in execution, Exhuma remains a delight to watch and is well-meaning in how it reveals that cultures and traditions from various roots can co-exist and how it parses the specters of the past that, in many ways, continue to haunt modern-day Korea. –

Exhuma is now out in local cinemas.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.