A PUBLIC CEMETERY UNDER THE MOON (1967)
Director: Kwon Cheol-hwi
Run time: 1h 29m
A kaleidoscopic and gore-filled take on the vengeful ghost trope, a wife returns from the grave to terrorise the maid who took her family
The horror genre may have spent much of its existence struggling for all-star casts and packed cinema theatres, but there are exceptions to this generalisation, such as this 1960s gem of a supernatural horror.
A Public Cemetery Under the Moon, also known as A Public Cemetery of Wol-ha or simply Public Cemetery, treads on plenty of familiar ground for K-Horrors of the time and since, including the setting of Japanese occupation, the vengeful female ghost (yeogwi) and the evil housemaid, the latter most famously depicted in Kim Ki-young's classic The Housemaid (1960).
An impressively gore-filled horror outing for a film form this era, you can expect attempted baby stabbings, eye-gouging, torture scenes and acid splashed in the face.
Providing the star power here is Park No-shik, a major action star in 1960s and 1970s, who featured in over 900 films in one of the busiest screen careers in the history of cinema anywhere. It also stars Hwang Hae, a star with a 50-year career where he was still appearing on screen during the 1990s, alongside Do Kum-bong, herself a star of nearly 300 films.
The film garnered more than 50,000 viewers in Seoul when it was released and further secured the reputation of the horror genre in Korea. Since then it has gone largely unnoted, but the Korean Film Archive posting of the entire film enables modern audiences a fresh view of this intriguing gothic horror.
Set in the 1930s during Japan’s occupation of Korea, Wol-hyang (Kang Mi-ae) is marginalised in society when her brother Choon-shik (Hwang Hae) and her fiancé Han-soo (Park No-shik) are arrested for resisting against the Japanese colonial rule.
When Han-soo is released from jail he becomes a wealthy businessman, restoring Wol-hyang’s status. However, Han-soo falls under the spell of the malicious housemaid (Do Kum-bong), who plots with a doctor (Heo Jang-gang) to slowly poison Wol-hyang to death to take over the household as the new wife.
Horror is often shackled by budget restraints and production costs, but this film uses some clever gut-swirling horror devices, such as a knife thrust towards a baby for a last-minute sweep. The film’s lighting is also superb, with flashes of colour combining with hypnotic music to provide a psychedelic tone.
While its middle section lags compared to it set up and final act, it is worth persevering with this slightly flabbier foray as the ending is well worth the wait.
As with many classic K-Horrors, A Public Cemetery Under the Moon wrestles with the fears and anxieties of the time, but also from Korea’s history. Here we see the influence of Japanese occupation in the formation of Korean society, alongside a commentary on the class system and the shame and envy it evokes in populations.
A star-studded horror smash at the time, this is a melodramatic view of domestic decay and fidelity, with enough moments of gore to keep the modern horror fan more than content.
WATCH THE FULL FILM FROM THE KOREAN FILM ARCHIVE: