VAFF Review: ‘The Closet’ is a terrifying story of botched parenthood, told through a mix of genres

From a very early point, you’re under no illusion as to what is going on in ‘The Closet‘, the first feature by Korean director Kwang-bin Kim. It’s common for other Korean horrors to slowly shuffle towards their true nature, hiding clues in events that could easily be passed off as coincidence. Not here; it’s no spoiler to tell you that the closet in question is an ethereal doorway through which a ghost possesses, then steals, an unhappy little girl. However, ‘The Closet‘ defies expectations by constantly weaving through related genres as it tells its story – horror, thriller, even comedy. It’s not until the final third do all these disparate pieces slot together, and the result is mostly satisfying.

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Echoing Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away‘, the film opens (well, after a brief, extremely unsettling prelude) on a girl being driven by her father to her new home in the country, nervous and unhappy as she leaves her life behind. Here, though, the tone is much darker than in Chihiro’s story. The father, Sang-won – played a little blandly by Ha Jung Woo – is an architect struggling with growing work pressures and the guilt of watching his wife die in a car crash with him at the wheel. His daughter, I-na (Heo Yool) is swallowed in a cloud of sadness, not just at losing her mother, but also at the growing distance between her and her father.

The house they move to is an old, beautiful countryside home, but it is very clearly a perfect place for a haunting, and it doesn’t take long for that to show itself. In fact, the breakneck speed that the film gets to the possession is a little disconcerting, especially if you were expecting a slower burn. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that the father turns out to be the most oblivious person on the planet – a stack of clues like horrific visions, slamming closet doors and screeching violins do not seem to bother him too much. Perhaps it was the writing or direction, but Woo doesn’t give us the emotional reactions we might expect.

Thank goodness, then, for when ‘The Closet‘ takes its first genre turn and introduces Kim Nam-gil as self-employed exorcist Kyung-hoon. Part Ghostbuster, part demonologist, Kyung-hoon has a connection to the overarching story that enables him to help Sang-won in his search for I-na. His introduction also introduces some much needed stakes, and suddenly there is a timer on the clock. The best part of the character, though, is Kim Nam-gil’s portrayal – gleefully irreverent, but also deep and controlled, he brings some much-needed push to the narrative and is always a pleasure to watch.

As the true face of the possession unfolds, and Kyung-hoon’s influence enables more…crossing-over opportunities, the film twists again into something more resembling a zombie movie with action elements, and it’s here that things really pick up speed. Like Korean blockbuster (and personal favourite) ‘Train To Busan‘, the pressure to save I-na matches her father’s growing realization that he’s been a terrible person, which suddenly also adds a need for redemption. As he makes the ultimate play to save his daughter – one that could cost him his own life – the firm settles into a finale that really elevates the final act.

Unfortunately, even with some fantastic ideas and genuine scares (including an escape from a bedroom that will not allow you to breathe), there’s a number of elements that distract from the film’s impact. As mentioned before, Ha Jung Woo strangely underplays his reactions to the strange happenings around him, but the soundtrack goes too far the other way and overdramatically announces each stare with shrieking strings. The film has a theme of barely controlled anxiety (caused by the horrific car crash), so when it’s revealed what Sang-won must do in order to find I-na, it should be a moment of unspeakable horror. However, it’s never developed at all past being a plot point, and the moment of the father intentionally submitting himself to that deep personal hell is soon left behind.

Perhaps it’s a sign this is a debut feature from a new director; even with these distractions, there are enough good ideas (and scares) here to earn a recommendation. The mix of genres is a refreshing change from the usual horror faire, and it works surprisingly well. Everything is shot and framed beautifully. The character dynamics are good, and the final act is certainly a fitting conclusion. The child actors are all exceptional, bringing an innocence that makes one scene in particular a genuine heartbreak to watch. Hopefully, Kwang-bin Kim’s next feature will enable him to take a bit more time unspooling his horrors, because ‘The Closet’ is a great showcase for his ideas.