Last week or so, I wrote about the state of domestic Horror movies at the Korean box office. You could give it a look, but the short conclusion was that it looked bad.[link] On average, the box office revenue of Horror movies consisted of about 1% of the total Korean box office intake.
That is deplorable!
However, the Korean public has never been much into horror.
This would make the opening of “The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) the biggest horror movie release ever in Korea. However, one could argue foul play as there is some room for debate regarding whether the movie was actually a “HORROR” movie. Personally, I have never really seen an exorcism horror movie this brightly lit and colorfully filmed.
It is weird!
It is clear that “The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) horror adjacent. It is horror inspired at least. You recognize the Horror genre’s trappings all over this movie to the degree it seems creepy once you think about it.
It is like a “figurative” Buffalo Bill wearing a bodysuit made of female skins.
Remember Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs?
And no, no one actually wears female skins in this movie.
It’s a “figurative” example.
The question is whether the trappings of horror makes a movie a horror movie.
What do you think?
Something to talk about.
I’ll return to this discussion later. Before that, I’ll go over the title translation.
Those who have been following my blog would know I like to compare the original Korean and Official English titles. This movie is not bad. I mean, there is not much discrepancy between them. The Korean title “검은 사제들” is translated into “The Dark/ black Priests.” I am not sure why they dropped adjective. Maybe because it sounded too pulpy? It does sound somewhat comic book…?
But “The Priests” alone gives off more of a pedophile drama vibe. I know that there was a B-movie starring Paul Bettany called “The Priest” (2011). It wasn’t bad for a B-movie. In its singular form, Priest could conjure diverse images. However, in its plural form, the word as a movie title ends up feeling perverted.
The times we live in.
I know for sure that the Korean production team is not subtle enough in their understanding of the nuances regarding the English language. Most likely, they just dropped the “Dark/ black” to simplify things.
Then, we have to ask why they bothered to add the adjective in the first place with the Korean title. I think that has to do with the cultural standing of the Catholic Church in Korea. I’ll talk about that later.
In the midst of modern-day Korea, where superstitions like exorcism and demons are frowned upon by mainstream society, including religion, there is a lone rogue exorcist priest played by Kim Yun-Seok. Even though I used the word “rogue,” he tolerated the Korean Catholic Church because the old Catholic church used to deal with pedophile priests.
It is a thin black line.
Once you become one of them, they have to tolerate you!
The exorcist had previously failed to rid a young teenage girl he once knew of a demon possessing her. The demon had jumped out a window to escape from being exorcised. Park So-Dam plays the girl and the demon possessing her.
Now, even though the girl is in a coma, the exorcist is determined to rid her body of the foul entity and save the girl’s soul. However, since the last debacle, his assistant quit, and thus he has to break in a new priest-in-training to assist in the exorcism. The manual states that it is a two-person job. This is where Gang Dong-Won comes in as he plays a character who the movie wants us to think is a goofball “Van Wilder” (2002) of the priesthood. The church tosses this good for nothing student to the exorcist. And we have an exorcism to get to.
In the Shadow of demons
If you know the horror genre, this setup will be very familiar to you. It is the granddaddy’s setup of exorcism movies “The Exorcist” (1973), starring the late great Max von Sydow and Jason Miller as the priests. The fascinating Linda Blair was the possessed girl.
Ever since Linda Blair spewed gunk all over the Max von Sydow and Jason Miller and spun her head around with the help of the then state of the arts special effects, “The Exorcist” (1973) has become the mold to copy off of. All of the subsequent movies in this specific sub-genre of horror movies have been influenced by this classic to the degree that it could be said that they were overshadowed by it. A similar thing happened with sci-fi movies and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).
It would be an understatement to say “The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) is the same. This Korean movie is “The Exorcist” (1973) in many ways. First, the overall story structure is similar. Second, the roles the characters play within the narrative are similar. Kim Yun-Seok is Max von Sydow. Gang Dong-Won is Jason Miller. Park So-Dam is Linda Blair. Third, this Korean movie has scenes shot for shot copied off of “The Exorcist” (1973), including the spewing gunk scene.
Well, “shot for shot” may be exaggerated, but you get the picture.
At the same time, “The Priests” (2015) is not really “The Exorcist” (1973) at its core. This leads back to the discussion I started earlier about whether “The Priests” (2015) is a Horror movie.
Loving the demons
The problem with classifying “The Priests” (2015) is that, in many ways, the movie feels like it started as a fanfiction of “The Exorcist” (1973). The beat by beat structural similarities between the two movies is not because “The Priests” (2015) is a simple knock off of “The Exorcist” (1973). Rather, it seems to be the result of the writer/director Jang Jae-Hyun’s affinity towards the classic movie.
He seems to really be a fan of the“The Exorcist” (1973)!
And this genuine affection for the source material is rather infectious. In fact, I would say that this is the movie’s main draw. At the same time, writer/director Jang Jae-Hyun does not seem to be interested in the same themes director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty tried to tackle “The Exorcist” (1973). This is an interesting aspect of fandom. What a fan takes away from a movie differs drastically from person to person and even from its intentions.
With this movie, writer/director Jang Jae-Hyun shows that he is not particularly interested in religious doubt, examining the nature of evil, religion’s place in the modern world, which lies at the foundation of “The Exorcist” (1973). That movie is a true psychological horror movie but with a levitating possessed girl. It is also about faith, which also should not be understated.
In contrast, “The Priests” (2015) is far more interested in the superficial surface trappings of the genre, such as exorcism’s specific rituals. The movie is fascinated with what kind of tools are used or what type of language should be used in the rituals. As an interesting tidbit of information, this movie uses Chinese, Korean, and Latin simultaneously.
So, demons who possess Koreans have a different language set than those possessing Americans?
Do they take language classes in hell?
I cannot say that there is no merit to this fascination. Details can be fun distractions. Most Fandoms tend to be made of obsessions regarding little details, after all. However, geeking out about these Horror genre details in a movie does not make that movie a horror movie.
The purpose of the story being told does!
What is at the core of the story?
“The Priests” (2015) is not about religion or what darkness lies deep within the human soul. In fact, the weird thing is that I cannot remember anyone actually praying to God in this movie. There is the only ritual that could basically be just any type of magic. It is like there is no place for God in an Exorcism movie. Since this genre is built upon the argument that, if there is a demon, there is also God, this omission is notable. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “End of Days” (1999) is a far more religious movie than “The Priests” (2015). Remember that gem of a movie?
Of course, I am sarcastic.
But still, that movie has the merit of being a weird movie for Arnold.
Both movies share the commonality of being Frankenstein mixtures of genres.
Because it adores the genre, “The Priests” (2015) comes off as weird conceptually. At least, “End of Days” (1999) was an Arnold Schwarzenegger that had horror elements pasted over it. This Korean movie feels more like it is wearing the skin of “The Exorcist” because, while it’s heavy borrowing from that movie, the story’s core is drastically different.
What is it?
Watching this movie is interesting. During the first act, “The Priests” (2015) comes more or less off like a not-so-great knock off of “The Exorcist” (1973). Only when the movie is deep in its second act is that you get a hint of what the movie is going for. Rather it hits you like a brick. This movie is not a horror movie. It is a classical adventure movie in the romantic traditions but just wearing a horror skin over it.
What do I mean by this?
At its core, “The Priests” (2015) is about the hero’s journey. Think Star Wars. The new priest-in-training is Luke Skywalker. The old exorcist is Obi‑Wan Kenobi. The movie introduces a naïve character to a wider new world and sends this character off on a quest to make him a hero. Yes, there will be setbacks. Yes, the protagonist will run away from the quest to then come back with a new purpose. This movie even has its own “on the mount of Mordor” moment where the hero is tasked to destroy evil once and for all.
While horror and adventure share some elements between them, the two are drastically different genres telling different stories. For one, the latter is far lighter. While there are pain and suffering during the journey, the outcome is generally a happy one. So, “The Priests” (2015) could be said to be “The Exorcist” lite. There is no reason to examine one’s beliefs or confront one’s fears. You can enjoy the overall triumph of humanity without much fuss. It is no wonder why “The Priests” (2015) did well in Korean.
It is not really Horror!
To the credit of the movie, it handles its Frankenstein nature with deft hands. Well decent for a first time director. However, the movie cannot totally avoid the pitfalls of what came from. It is fanfiction at heart.
“The Priests” (2015) is one of those movies that pleasantly catches you off guard but, once the surprise wears off, you see the flaws immediately. For myself, I came out of the movie impressed but, 10 minutes out of the theatre, the score in mind started to degrade the more I thought of the movie.
The problem with the movie is that it never totally evolved beyond its fanfiction origins. It is still too distracted by playing around with the exorcist movie genre’s trapping that the story it wants to tell gets rushed without receiving proper screen time for development. “The Priests” (2015) is a 108-minute movie. It is rather short for movies nowadays. The movie basically only spends the last 30 minutes on the story it really wants to tell. I mean the hero’s journey.
What is the movie doing for the rest of the time?
I would say the movie wastes it hanging around. “The Exorcist” is slowly paced when compared to modern movies. However, it spends this time to build suspense and explore questions regarding religion and the nature of evil before going into the exorcism itself. “The Priests” (2015) tries to follow this example but, as mentioned before, doesn’t really care about those aspects of horror.
So, it ends up with time to burn as the first act of this movie takes up about an hour of this movie’s running time. It fills up this empty time partially by tossing in fragments of the genre clichés into the movie. It has to go through the motions, after all. It is fanfiction. However, it then fails to follow up on them for further development. Thus, they are just left hanging.
The rest of the time is filled up by random fan stuff the director seems interested in. For example, the director spends time with a very fictional depiction of the Korean Catholic Church. While this is quirky and interesting, it has basically no impact on the overall plot. Another example would be the time spent hinting at a wider cinematic world with secret societies and a looming apocalypse.
This also goes nowhere, and its plot relevance is also almost null. This lack of follow-up and focus is also represented in the new priest-in-training character played Gang Dong-Won. The movie tries to set up the character as this goofball slacker with a montage but immediately changes its mind on who the character is.
The list goes on.
Because so much time is wasted on interesting but ultimately useless setup, the character development suffers. While the actors do their best, the two main characters never move beyond archetypes. The stubborn old veteran exorcist is just your typical mentor character who needs redeeming. The trainee is just a naïve character who also needs redemption in his own way.
Even the relationship between mentor and student is woefully underserved as the two main characters are never on screen together during the first 50 minutes. Once they do actually meet and not share pleasantries, the two are rushed into the exorcism.
This waste of time means that the whole hero’s journey has to be compressed into the last 30 minutes. As a result, the hero’s journey ends up feeling too abrupt and undeserving. Even a possessed demon baby piglet cannot compensate for this.
Oh yes, there is a demon pig in this movie!
I have been putting the movie down for a while. And it is definitely true that the movie has problems. Yes, you could basically cut 30 minutes’ worth of filler out of the first hour of this movie, and not much would actually change. However, I have to give the director credit as he still manages to keep the movie from not being dull despite the pacing problems. The pointless filler is at least somewhat interesting, and the movie doesn’t linger too long on each.
The real gem of this movie comes after the one hour mark of this movie. This is when the exorcism starts up. The fan-like attention to specific details regarding the ritual gets the audience into the mood for an exorcism first. The director then films these scenes more like an action movie, just with the protagonists standing around a bed with a girl tied to it. The excitement and energy never let down until the movie ends with a bang.
Now let’s talk about the subject matter a bit before I end this review.
Catholic Priests within Korean Culture
I was concerned about when I heard about “The Priests” (2015) is the cultural relevance the subject of the Catholic Church had in Korean culture. The religious landscape of Korea in 2014, according to a survey, states 22% of the population isBuddhist, 21% Protestant Christian, and 7% Roman Catholic. So, it could be said that the influence of the Catholic Church in Korea is not small. However, the perception of it is rather different than those of either Europe or America.
The reason why “The Exorcist” (1973) resonated in the American pop-cultural landscape is the Catholic Church’s perception in that area. Roman Catholic Church is viewed as connected with the archaic and supernatural emanating from its rituals and links with the old country. The gothic architecture and stern image of the clergy also contribute.
The Korean perception of the Catholic Church is rather different. While there is evidence that the idea of Christianity had been transmitted to Korea much earlier, it is known that Catholic as a religion only really started to gain traction during the late 18thcentury. Its appeal was its relative progressiveness compared to the dark oppression of the Joseon dynasty.
During the years, it grew until several attempts to purge the country of the pesky Christians during the 19th century in which thousands were killed. While the Catholic Church’s growth was stilted, Protestants mostly originating from America started to come in during the final gasps of the Joseon dynasty in the late 19thcentury. Eventually, the Protestants came to overshadow the Catholics in numbers and prestige.
The Catholic Church’s perception resulting from this historical background tends to be more modern than how Americans view the Catholic Church. It is not about rituals or oppression. It is more about freedom and equality. At least, we do not think of Exorcists when we think of the Catholic Church in Korea.
The term socialist or communists come into mind far before anything supernatural. For the last several decades, the Catholic Church has become politicized and becoming more radicalized in its left-wing leanings here in Korea.
That is scarier than Demons here!
This is why I thought that “The Priests” (2015) might not appear on the Korean public’s radar. These concerns became rather mute since the movie came out far less religious than even the 2005’s Constantine starring Keanu Reeves. This Korean movie treatment of religion is on the level of Van Helsing (2004) starring Hugh Jackman. Not many may remember, but Hugh Jackman’s character was an agent of the Vatican in that movie.
It is just supernatural fantasy!
“The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) is an interesting movie to think about. While its fanboy like adoration of “The Exorcist” (1973) makes it stick closely to the external trappings of the classic movie and the Horror subgenre it gave birth to, “The Priests” (2015) is not really a religious horror movie at its heart. It really wants to be a lighter and more exciting pulp adventure movie in which a hero is born. The TV show “Supernatural” (2005-) is far darker and disturbing in terms of darkness.
While this nature of the movie makes the movie interesting in concept, the execution on the part of the writer /director on his first feature film results in the movie being uneven and heavy in the backend as the movie wasted a lot of screen time initially with interesting but ultimately pointless filler. However, the director’s enthusiasm for “The Exorcist” (1973) and the exorcism subgenre, in addition to his energetic direction, end up compensating for a lot of this movie’s flaws.
But not totally.
While you may have fun, the movie viewing experience ends up leaving not much of an impression. I do not think I would ever want to watch this movie again, as there is not much more to get from it.
As a movie, “The Priests / 검은 사제들” (2015) has a lot of interesting parts to it. However, the sum of its parts is far better than the movie as a whole. I give it a grade of B. I’m feeling generous.
Score: B or 6.75/10