THOUSAND YEARS OLD FOX (1969)
Korean folktale imagined in a melodramatic horror where supernatural forces drive a savage revenge mission
Despite its Chinese origins, the kumiho, or gumiho, a nine-tailed fox with various furious motivations, is very much a classic Korean folktale.
This fox lives a thousand years and can freely transform into various forms, most often a beautiful woman who goes on a murderous rampage.
This fable is given the full treatment in Shin Sang-ok's hammy supernatural horror, that combines classic themes with a very traditionally Korean one to deliver a vitally important piece of filmmaking.
Yeo-hwa has been banished from the Queen's kingdom. As she sets off into the wilderness with her baby, she is set upon by a band of ruthless bandits. After her baby is killed, Yeo-hwa desperately attempts to escape, but falls into a lake and seemingly dies.
Instead, the spirit of a fox demon possesses her body and sets about exacting vengeance on the bandits and then a wide assortment of other victims for good measure.
Meanwhile, her husband is being romantically pursued by the empress, who is in love with him. While he tries to save his possessed wife, other members of the kingdom are more intent on killing her.
It is an early marker of the type of genre-fluid filmmaking which has become a key characteristic of Korean cinema though the years. It is most certainly a horror, but it is highly theatrical and melodramatic in nature.
The cinematography is well ahead of its time too, making it one of the most visually appealing works of Korean cinema, particularly across the 1960s.
It is also a martial arts film in its own right and includes vast amounts of wirework, with Yeo-hwa sometimes floating gracefully and at other times springing into action during fight sequences. At the time, the film was picked up for Hong Kong distribution by the Shaw Brothers, being released in 1971 and competing with pictures such as Bruce Lee’s martial arts action classic The Big Boss.
Thousand Years Old Fox is an atmospheric picture, one with a tension that builds and an uneasy ambience that festers. The rage of the characters seems to seep through the screen even when such anger is not being demonstrated.
The film plays an important part in the history and formation of Korean horror, and is the first instalment of the thematically linked 'Evil Fox Trilogy' (though there is no narrative link), including 1994 horror The Fox with Nine Tails and 2006 musical comedy The Fox Family.
This is a good place to start not just for that Canidae trio, but for a deeper understanding of Korean horror, and how works such as this built the foundations for modern K-Horror. It is more than this historic marker though. It is also a stark portrayal of female rage and the power of revenge.