Trashy movies were on the agenda for me this weekend, but I kept getting sucked into actual quality films like this 2007 Korean offering from the Jung brothers. Told out of chronological order by a possibly unreliable and definitely mysterious narrator, Epitaph is a cleverly woven anthology of three terrifying love stories. There’s some good old K-Horror nastiness too.
On the night in 1979 that an abandoned hospital is to be demolished, a doctor who worked there during World War II watches an old film of a brain operation. Later he has dinner with his daughter. She nags him about being lonely and he says he feels responsible for the deaths of his two wives. He fears to lose another. There is another woman there at dinner, if you pay close attention. Who is she? Another daughter? Or a grandchild? Regardless, the old man tells us in a voiceover that he died that night and we go into a flashback.
It is 1942 and Korea is occupied by Japanese troops. We assume the old man is a younger character in the hospital, but we won’t know for sure who until the end of the film. For now, we are with a very young med student who is soon to be married to a girl he has never seen, the daughter of the hospital director. Squeamish about autopsies, he vomits after seeing the latest victim of a serial killer who seems to be targeting Japanese soldiers. Then a beautiful suicide victim comes in and he no longer minds working in the morgue, falling in love with and talking to her body. But what is wrong with the electricity in the building? Who is crying at the shrine in the hospital? Where did all these damn snails come from? No really, they are crawling all over the morgue…. hey, what is that knocking sound from inside the refrigerator where the bodies are kept?
Not everyone who comes to the hospital is dead. One little girl isn’t so lucky. The survivor of a car crash that killed the rest of her family, she thinks her mother’s angry ghost is haunting her. We get to walk through the creepy hospital halls with her in her nightmares, which is a fun ride through the middle of the film. A doctor with a tragic accident in his own past uses hypnosis in a effort to heal the little girl’s psyche. Just when you think the twist in this story has been revealed, you realize it was only setting you up for a more disturbing one.
Wait, though, wasn’t there a serial killer on the loose? A husband and wife team of doctors helps the army investigators search for the killer. But before we can find out who the killer is, we have to find out if both the husband and the wife really exist. What happened in Japan during the brain operation that was filmed? And we still don’t know who is telling these stories!
With all those plot threads to be tied up, and yes, it does all work out in the end to a remarkably satisfying explanation for a horror movie, I was compelled to watch the whole thing despite the lack of nudity and minimal gross-outs. If the superntaural stuff works, I can forgive the lack of red stuff sometimes. This is the rare subtle Asian horror movie: it’s not ridiculously cheesy, the story is about adults and not goofy kids in a haunted school, the acting is good, the traditional ghost elements are used sparingly to great effect and the story is intellectually stimulating without being incomprehensible. 3 stars.