This claustrophobic 'apartment horror' turns down the gore and amplifies the chills as mystery grows around a missing teenager
Possessed, also known as Living Death or Distrust Hell, is a horror which arrived in the wake of Korea’s most prolific period of horror output early the same decade.
It does a fine job of picking up on some of the most prominent elements of that boom period and produce something deeply intriguing in its own right.
It evokes concepts around the 'apartment horror' aligned with Yoon Jong-chan's fine outing Sorum (2001), but it also taps into another reoccurring theme of modern Korean horror – religion.
Possessed provides a juxtaposition between the contemporary appeal of Christianity and the traditional allure of Shamanism, with a fanatical Christian mother living in an apartment block with a Shaman temple within.
College student Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi) returns home when her 14-year-old sister So-jin (Shim Eun-kyung) goes missing. The search is complicated by her mother (Kim Bo-yeon), a staunch churchgoer, believing that prayer is the route to finding her, even refusing to work with police on the case.
While the search for So-jin continues, the apartment block’s various inhabitants begin to appear in Hee-jin's dreams and rumours grow that So-jin had been possessed.
One immediate technical element of the film that works well is the sound editing, ensuring that an atmosphere is built and that the jump scares land. Jump scares are sometimes a cheap device in horrors (be loud when you cannot be good), but here there is measured use of sound to get us rattled.
Where the film really stretches its legs is during the dream sequences, as Hee-jin's paranoia and fear manifest themselves in some visually spectacular ways. Not wanting to give anything away, but there is a leg scratching scene that you can almost feel.
As with Sorum, the apartment setting – a highly common way for Koreans to live – plays a role in developing the story and indeed horrors of Possessed. There is a sense that everyone knows each other’s business here and the tighter living space offers an element of confinement that turns the screw on the scares. Eventually, the apartment building itself will play host to the film’s final stages and narrative resolution.
The film is ahead of its time in stylish appearance, seeming to mark a departure point from the K-Horrors earlier in the decade to the modern sheen of horror films from Korea after this point.
Despite the film having a more tempered impact in the wider remit of K-Horrors, at the time Director Lee won Best New Director at the 10th Busan Film Critics Awards and Best Screenplay at the 30th Blue Dragon Film Awards.
Considering the value of its themes of religious fundamentalism and the importance of the apartment space in Korea, it deserves more plaudits than it has enjoyed in the years since its release. Restrained yet creepy, engaging and well-acted, Possessed deserves consideration as one of Korea’s finer modern horrors.