Although Korean horror films have for the most part been an uninspired lot over the last couple of years, there have still been a few flashes of creativity, enough so to keep genre fans hoping, holding out for something truly special. Simply put, “The Guard Post 506”, the second effort from Kong Su Chang, director of the excellent military themed “R-Point”, is that film, a nerve-wracking, determinedly adult slice of fear which makes all the waiting and suffering through endless tales of depressingly similar vengeful female ghosts worthwhile. Deservedly, the film also scored big at the box office, following in the footsteps of “R-Point”, which was the highest grossing domestic horror hit of 2004, by entering the top ten at the number one spot. This success has led to an international release, with the film now arriving on DVD via The Associates.
The film is set in the titular outpost in the demilitarised zone, where Sergeant Major Noh Seong Gyu (Cheon Ho Jin, recently in “A Dirty Carnival”) is summoned to one rainy night to investigate the unexplained massacre of the twenty strong squad stationed there. The slaughter left only one survivor seemingly untouched, though he lies deep in a coma and is unable to give a reason for the terrible violence. Under pressure from his superiors who give him and his team just the one night to solve the mystery before it is covered up, Noh tries desperately to sift through the clues, only to find another man still alive, Lieutenant Yoo Jeong Woo (Cho Hyun Jae, “Scandal”), the son of a high ranking army chief. Strange and disturbing things start to happen, and it becomes clear that Yoo knows far more than he is letting on, though as bloody events start to repeat themselves, it seems as though even the truth may not be enough to save Noh and his men from the same fate.
“The Guard Post 506” sees Kong coming on leaps and bounds as a filmmaker, and his years of planning on the production certainly paid off, with pretty much every aspect of the film working to perfection. Although “R-Point” was undoubtedly a superior genre outing compared to its peers, it suffered from an unevenness of pace and long stretches of inactivity, whereas here Kong really tightens the screws, opening with a gruesome bang and never letting up. The film is tense from the first frame, and the action unfolds at a quick pace, which he somehow manages to maintain over the two hour running time. This is partly due to the cleverly structured plot, which switches effortlessly between past and present, weaving flashbacks into the main story with a consummate skill that keeps the viewer hooked. Although ambiguous and obtuse, particularly during the early stages, the film does gradually reveal its secrets, slowly allowing the viewer to try to grasp the full ghastliness of what is happening to the unfortunate soldiers. As such, while the plot does require a bit of brainwork, there is none of the frustration which comes with being toyed with and left without a satisfactory conclusion, as the film delivers with a suitably downbeat and final payoff.
The frights come thick and fast, though thankfully Kong holds back from inserting any cheap or sudden scares, instead attempting to create an immerse, oppressive atmosphere of death and unrelenting terror, conjuring a palpable dread which makes for a truly gripping cinematic experience. The guard post itself serves as a near perfect setting, and thanks to an excellent use of light, shadow and noise it acts almost as a character itself. The tension is further accentuated by the fact that every five minutes a petrified soldier rushes out of the darkness to report another sinister occurrence, keeping the viewer on tenderhooks throughout, always expecting the worst – which more often than not is exactly what happens. Kong shows an excellent use of timing, consistently managing to wring the maximum amount of suspense from the set pieces and often taunting with half glimpses and suggestions of unpleasantness before revealing them in their full awful glory. This really does transport the viewer into the shoes of the characters, though for some of course this may not necessarily be a good thing.
The film does not only rely upon atmosphere and slow burn chills to frighten, and is also an incredibly visceral affair, drenched with blood and gore. This in itself is quite unique, as few films manage to balance psychological scares and gruesome visual shocks, though Kong deftly attacks the viewer with both. Increasingly violent as it progresses, the film also builds in some disgusting physical horror, guaranteed to make even the most hardened genre fan’s skin crawl.
All this amounts to “The Guard Post 506” being not only to one of the best Korean horror films in recent years, but indeed one of the best genre efforts from anywhere. Kong improves on his impressive debut in almost every way, and in the process creates a modern masterpiece of immaculately crafted and mature terror.
Su-chang Kong (director) / Su-chang Kong (screenplay)
CAST: Cho Hyun-jae