“Muoi: Legend of a Portrait” is the latest of the 2007 batch of Korean summer horror films to make it to DVD. As any fan will sadly admit, the genre has of late become rather stale, with directors all too often content to simply recycle the same old tales of vengeance seeking female spectres, and as such it is somewhat of a relief that Kim Tae Kyeong, best known for his 2004 hit “The Ghost”, has at least attempted to try something a little different. This is mainly through the fact that the film is a joint Korean-Vietnamese production, with the hook of being shot mainly in Vietnam, potentially offering up the opportunity for exotic locales and shocks. Interestingly, although having performed well enough in the domestic Korean market, the film has run into some trouble in Vietnam, where the tough censors tend not to look too kindly on productions with supernatural themes.
Viewers will be forgiven if the plot sounds depressingly familiar, following novelist Yoon Hee (actress Jo An, recently in the comedy “Operation Makeover” and who previously featured in the genre hit “Wishing Stairs”), who travels to Vietnam to investigate the local legend of a cursed portrait. While there, she tries to patch things up with her old friend Seo Yeon (Cha Ye Ryeon, also in the horror “Voice”), who previously left Korea under a cloud of scandal, and about whom she wrote a rather unflattering book. The picture in question is that of Muoi, an unfortunate young woman who paid the price for falling in love with the wrong man back in 1896, during the French colonial period in Vietnam, and which is now said to house her revenge hungry ghost, causing misery and death for anyone who gazes upon it (in other words, “Ringu” with a painting instead of a video). This of course, does not deter Yoon Hee in the least, and sure enough the silly girl is soon knee deep in threatening visions and sinister secrets, pushing her to solve the not particularly challenging enigma of Muoi and confront her own chequered past before the evil hex claims her life.
As with “The Ghost”, Kim here attempts to weave a complex web of mystery, again with a character based approach, though he has thankfully improved upon this previous effort, which though entertaining was a rather muddled affair. Wisely, he chooses to focus upon the relationship between Yoon Hee and Seo Yeon rather than on the tired supernatural puzzle, which leads to an interesting, surprisingly harrowing series of revelations. As such, the film does at times feel more like grim melodrama than horror, though the elements of the two genres are blended together well enough to keep the viewer engrossed. Where it does differ is in that although Yoon Hee is the central protagonist, she is not a particularly likeable character, and it is far easier to sympathise with Seo Yeon and indeed with poor Muoi, whose story unfolds in parallel through a series of well staged flashbacks. Although this does put the viewer in the potentially odd position of identifying with the supposedly villainous ghost instead of her likely victim (a better title would perhaps have been “Muoi: Portrait of a Ghost”), it makes the otherwise predictable film a far more interesting journey, and one of the rare occasions when familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.
The film’s real strength is its high production values, and it certainly looks great, boasting some of the strongest visuals seen in a genre effort for some time. Kim makes great use of the Vietnamese setting, packing in plenty of local colour in a subtle manner and without ever making things feel too much like a travelogue. A lot of effort was obviously put into the period set flashbacks, in particular in terms of the costumes, and this too pays off, giving the film’s back story and curse a convincing origin. All of this really helps in generating a creepy atmosphere, and the film enjoys a suitably other-worldly feel which helps to distract from some of its unfortunate inconsistencies (such as the facts that Muoi’s house is quite obvious and accessible and that pretty much everyone Yoon Hee talks to seems to know all about the legend, leading to the question as to why she couldn’t simply find out everything she needed to know on the internet) and lapses into cliché.
Wisely, Kim in general seems to be aiming for slow-burn chills rather than sudden frights, and the film doesn’t feature too many real scares, aside from a few odd visions. However, although these are pretty much cheap shots, quite obviously thrown in to keep the viewer awake, they are creative and spooky enough to pass muster, mainly due to some special effects which are far more impressive than those of other similar efforts.
Of course, it could be argued that with its glossy visuals the film is merely papering over the cracks, and to an extent this is true, as Kim never really tries to break the mould or to add much to the usual formula beyond the unusual setting. Still, this doesn’t detract from its entertainment value, and “Muoi: Legend of a Portrait” is definitely one of the summer’s better and classier horror offerings, and shallow though it may sound, it is nice to see what must have been a considerable sum of money being spent on a genre production, the results of which certainly show on screen.
Hyung-tae Kim (director) / Tae-kyeong Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Anh Thu … Muoi
Ye-ryeon Cha … Seo-yeon
An Jo … Yun-hui