Directed by Yun Jong-chan, 2001, 112 minutes, starring Kim Myung-min, Jang Jin-young, Ju-bong Gi, An Jo and Young-hoon Park.
Sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which titles make it big in the Asian horror genre and which simply fade out of view. Despite winning a handful of prestigious awards, Korea 's 2001 (here read: pre-Tale of Two Sisters) entry, Sorum, is an even less well-known contemporary of that criminally-overlooked Korean masterpiece, Acacia. And just like the aforementioned work, I had hoped Sorum would be a hidden gem. Unfortunately, not every lump of coal can become a diamond, and Sorum definitely belongs to the former category.
The movie explores some of the same socially unacceptable themes as Acacia: the major difference between the two films is that Sorum just doesn't go anywhere. Unlike Acacia, which develops its plot beautifully with lots of eeriness and tension, Sorum fools you into thinking that something is going to happen - any moment now - and time after time it fails to hit you with the scare which is so badly needed. It's like a two-hour joke without a punchline. It took exactly one hour and sixteen minutes before a single character even said "There is something strange going on in this building" - which is just not an acceptable time-to-interest value ratio. Too little happens for too long. It works - just about - on a drama level, particularly during the incredibly depressing final half-hour, but if you want your horror to be scary, at least in some form, this is not the movie for you.
An interesting note on the cinematography front is that the entire film is occupied by hundreds of shots of the backs of people's heads. Throughout the first part of the movie in particular, the shots barely feature any faces at all, and certainly not many from the front on. It's an intriguing practice, almost forcing the viewer to look through the person who's central to the shot and directing our attention forward to what they're looking at, so it's a vicarious and off-kilter first-person experience for much of the time. It also means we cannot read their facial expressions, rendering the process of getting to know their characters and motivations inevitably even slower and more difficult - which is entirely in keeping with the movie's leaden, immensely drawn-out style.
Frankly, it doesn't really look too great either. The screencaps will tell you the story of just how weak the visuals are: I saw no imagery worth taking caps of, to be brutally honest. The apartment building location was a godsend to the cinematographer and is just about the only source of atmosphere in the entire piece. Towards the end of the movie, we are told explicitly by one of the characters, "Fear what you cannot see!" Well, sorry Mr Yoon Jong-chan, that's not really how horror movies usually work. It didn't work for Inugami - a movie about evil dog-spirits, with no actual evil dog-spirits in it - and it doesn't work for Sorum.
A young taxi driver named Kim Yong-hyun (Kim Myeong-min, last spotted in equally tame horror Into The Mirror), is moving into apartment number 504 of a seriously dilapidated tenement building named Migum Apartments in Seoul . It's a pretty creepy place: not only is it all but derelict, it's eerily silent. There are garbage bags and filth everywhere. Eventually though, he manages to meet one of his new neighbours, Mr Lee, the guy who lives in number 505, who divulges an interesting snippet of information: the owner of the building still keeps renting out rooms, despite the fact that the entire block is due to soon be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. Not only that, but it turns out that most of the tenants have already left to find new accommodation. The apartment itself is a mess: the ceiling bears the marks of a recent fire, and the wallpaper is mismatched, presumably due to smoke and burn damage.
That night, while he's walking through the corridors to go out to buy cigarettes, he notices a couple of strange things: firstly, the light in the corridor regularly goes out from time to time; and secondly, the girl assistant at the local mini-mart reacts very oddly to him - standing stock still and staring off into the distance.
It transpires that Kim has a very troubled past, which is why he's had to come to live in such an awful place. It also turns out he has some more new neighbours - a couple of young girls, one of whom is called Sun-young (Jang Jin-young), who is the 7-11 assistant he bought cigarettes from the day before, and the other, Eun-soo. Later on that evening, he gets a chance to talk to her as he takes her home in his taxi, but she is completely uncommunicative. It turns out the reason is because she's being mentally, financially and physically abused by her husband, who lays into her the moment she gets back. Her husband is under the impression that she's sleeping around because she lost their son, Young-joon - and seeing her with the taxi driver merely confirms it for him. So he steals her month's earnings and beats her up into the bargain.
The other female neighbour, Eun-soo, who is a piano teacher, claims she's scared of the building because she's seeing dead people in her dreams. One dead person in particular: Kwang-tae, her late boyfriend.
Eventually, after much awkwardness and reluctance on Sun-young's part, the taxi driver manages to persuade her to go for a drive with him, and she begins to talk to him - mostly about the history of apartment number 504, and how someone died in that apartment before he moved into it: Kwang-tae had died in a fire in that room - hence the burned ceiling. In true macho fashion though, the taxi driver pretends to be unconcerned about it, despite the fact that he's obviously a bit unnerved. It seems that since moving into the apartment, death and tragedy is surrounding him in different forms - the death of a passing motorcyclist, the death of Kwang-tae and the loss of Sun-young's child. Later that night, after his shift Kim finds Sun-young, beaten again, covered with blood and acting very crazily, and the truth emerges: her drunken and abusive husband is dead. Assuming that she's killed him, he buries the man's body in a shallow grave out in the woods. However, Sun-young swears up and down that she didn't kill him. Caught together in their shared secret, she begins to trust him, so much so that they get romantically involved.
Kim learns more about his apartment as he listens to the other occupants of the building, and the stories are not very reassuring. Not only did Kwang-tae die in that room, but a murder took place there thirty years beforehand, too. A married man, who went insane, had an affair with his next-door neighbour and ended up murdering his wife and abandoning their baby inside the empty apartment. The apartment caught fire, killing the man, and the baby was rescued - but not before his back was burned horribly. The wife's corpse was never found. One even odder detail, though, is that Mr Song, the barber, claims he saw the flames inside the room, and that they weren't burning anywhere else than around the body of the man.
Mr Lee, the writer occupying room #505, claims that the entire building is cursed and haunted by the murdered mother - which would seem to be borne out by the fact that Kim is now experiencing strange and macabre events for himself. But why have these events started to happen again now Kim is living in the building? He himself seems to be interwoven into the very psychic fabric of the apartment and his arrival is an portent of new horror - and echoes of horrors past - to be inflicted upon the other residents...
It must be said that Sorum does take a bloody ice age to actually get going: almost three-quarters of the movie is simply a very, very, very slow setting-up of personalities and situations which could have been dealt with a lot more quickly, and when things still aren't really happening after that initial hour is up, you wonder if anything is going to happen at all. While Acacia's snail-like pace meant that the movie grew and blossomed very organically with strange, intriguing, beautiful things happening from the outset, in Sorum's case it's just far too meandering and the time it takes for anything whatsoever to happen - other than watching the backs of people's heads, or watching them stare off into middle distance - means that your patience levels are a bit tested, to put it generously. Tested beyond the point of mental anguish and right up to the point of 'if nothing happens in the next five minutes I'm turning the DVD player off and selling my copy on Ebay', if I'm honest.
For the first time in my reviewing career, I'm absolutely stumped and lost for words. So very, very little happens during the course of Sorum that there's almost nothing I can say about it and almost no pictures to post. It starts with a great traditional premise - the haunted apartment building, which has made so many fine appearances in films like Dark Water and Three - and totally drops the ball. It promises an eerie, elegiac supernatural horror like Acacia, but then develops into a weak psychodrama-murder-mystery with no ghostly goings-on, a bit like ordering a deep-pan pizza and then being delivered a stale cheese sandwich in its place. I wouldn't even recommend watching the first hour - it's almost totally pointless. And after an hour and a half I was nearly crying from the boredom. I don't think it's any coincidence that Sorum rhymes with 'bore 'em' ;-) As for the ending, it was so unscary that I couldn't believe it was over - my jaw dropped, I flailed my arms with frustration, I think I may even at one point have demanded my money back from my DVD player ;-)
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment: 2/10. I sat through this entire movie. Ph34r my l337 staying powerz0rz ;-)
Chills: nope, didn't get any of them
Scariness: if you can handle flickering light bulbs, you're probably going to be just fine
Ghosts: didn't get any of them either
Sex: 2/10. One mercifully short shag: one mercifully short hand shandy
Cigarettes: Everyone smokes about 1000 a day
Sorum: Acacia's evil twin
Length: I want those two hours of my life back!
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: almost no tomatoes were harmed during the making of this film
Films in a similar style: Acacia, Inugami, Derek Acorah's Ghost Towns
*** For drama fans only ***
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/sorum/sorum.html - KFCC were just as disappointed with it, by the looks of things
http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?at_code=319395 - a thoroughly bizarre comparison of Sorum to film noir at OhMyNews.com. Don't ask me, I didn't write it! ;-)
http://www.monsterhunter.coldfusionvideo.com/Sorum.html - the MonsterHunter pretty much echoes my sentiments about the movie
http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm01.html#sorum - Korean Film say - and I quote: "...in some ways it's more suited for people who don't like horror films". Boy, they got that right ;-)
http://www.digitallyobsessed.com/showreview.php3?ID=7759 - a good, insightful review at DigitallyObsessed, who liked it far better than I did
http://www.hkflix.com/xq/asp/filmID.1891/qx/details.htm - HKFlix say, quite unequivocally, "Though every single person on Earth seems to love this, we felt it was excruciatingly slow and unrewarding. Furthermore, it is NOT a horror movie." Well, you can count me into that minority, too ;-)
http://www.horrorchannel.com/index.php?name=Reviews&req=showcontent&id=482 - Johnny Butane at the Horror Channel loved it, however
http://www.horrortalk.com/reviews/Sorum/Sorum.htm - the final conclusion of Horrortalk.com's review made me chuckle
http://www.upcominghorrormovies.com/reviews/asian/sorum.php - a very magnanimous and entirely fair review at UHM
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Sorum.php - Han Cinema's fact file on the movie