The popular Korean domain of the apartment block provides the atmosphere of horror in a slow-burn mystery entwining us in the fortunes of characters tittering on the brink
It is estimated that around 40 per cent of Koreans live in an apartment. Sometimes seen as a beacon of middle-class affluence, in Sorum it is the apartment block itself that is the source of its horror elements, somewhat similar to how the apartment is later used in Possessed (2009).
The debut feature of Yoon Jong-chan, who would continue a long tradition of first-time Korean directors making a horror then moving onto other genres, creating non-horrors Blue Swallow (2005), I Am Happy (2009) and My Paparotti (2013).
It is likely Sorum was a deeply personal project for Yoon. He lost his wife in the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995, where 502 people tragically died and 937 were injured.
Yoon then went to the US to study film directing at Syracuse University, returning to Korea to direct Sorum and tackle the notion of the apartment building as the begetter of horror.
The film’s title, Sorum, means ‘goosebumps’ in Korean, and when paired with a certain verb means bloodcurdling, hair-raising, chilling and horrifying.
This is a horror in a purely atmospheric sense, but what the film instead does is allow us to become so deeply entwined in the lives of the apartment inhabitants – as if it were us living in close quarters with them – that we feel a bond with their spiralling fortunes.
Young taxi driver Yong-hyun (Kim Myung-min) moves into an old apartment building on the verge of demolition. Taking over apartment 504, he learns the previous inhabitant had died in a fire there.
He meets his next-door neighbour, a middle-aged novelist called Mr. Lee (played by screen regular of the time Gi Ju-bong), who is writing a book about the events which took place in that apartment.
Yong-hyun then becomes involved with another neighbour, Sun-yeong (Jang Jin-young), and the pair begin to scuttle down a dark path together.
Throughout Sorum, our focus is on the atmospheric notion of the apartment building. Of its darkened hallways and dank stairs. Of the pernicious nature of what lies within its walls. The monsters, killers and ghosts of other horrors are instead replaced by a rundown apartment.
While apartments provide affordable living, they can also provide a claustrophobic environment where the lives of neighbours are foisted upon each other. In the case of the apartment in Sorum, it is Seoul’s working class and lower income demographic that are forced into a rundown building on a hill over-looking the city’s more affluent landscape.
Sorum is not just a slow-burn, but a continually low-key outing. There is no explosion of horror by its conclusion. It is more a character study of those who live such lives in Korea and the concept of the apartment block as the epicentre of domestic horrors.
It is Director Yoon’s masterful accumulation of suspense through the apartment block that creates a horror film in spirit and tension.