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Posted on the 11 June 2024 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
2024 feels like an interesting year to think about Godzilla. The big scaly boy has been present for a few years now in the American Monsterverse series of films and TV shows, which, in spite of still sometimes capturing meaningful emotional moments (I’d say this is mostly true of Monarch – the recurring theme is absent or failing parents), mostly strips the cultural meaning and context from the story. This is most obvious in comparing the two most recent releases, Monsterverse’s Godzilla x Kong and the Japanese-made, Takashi Yamazaki-directed Godzilla Minus One: one of these films is about the post-WW2 devastation of the Japanese psyche, specifically about the shame of a kamikaze pilot who returns home, an oxymoron, a contradiction that he desperately struggles to live with, the other, in spite of having its moments (I could have maybe watched a whole dialogue-free film about Kong’s struggle to free his new-found people and his emotional connection to a deeply traumatised sulky teenage ape), seems mostly predicated on “wouldn’t it be cool if…” (Kong and Godzilla fought in front of and absolutely flattened the Great Pyramids, fights took place in zero gravity, etc.). These American films are an exercise in what happens when something culturally load-bearing like Godzilla (an ultimately unbeatable, unimaginably strong entity that wreaks havoc – the reality of the nuclear bomb, made into a giant, ancient lizard awakened by the atomic age), is removed from its context and thrown into a different one, with little grasp of inherent meaning (I think this is maybe why Kong, a character much easier to place and make sympathetic due to his apian similarity to humanity, has been more at the center of these films lately). Godzilla Minus One is one of the best films to come out this year (or last year, originally), Godzilla x Kong is an entertaining but ultimately forgettable entry into a series of films that must, by virtue of 2024 franchise logic, continue for as long as there is any money to be made (to its credit, it still attracts great actors like Rebecca Hall, and young Kaylee Hottle once again gives a fantastic performance).

This is a very long-winded way to arrive at the idea of what cultural context means for a horror film, and how horror can meaningfully address historical trauma, while that meaning would inevitably get stripped away when removed from a context where it could be understood. The devastation in Godzilla Minus One does not begin with the attack of the monster, it’s the pre-existing condition of the firebombed Tokyo that pilot Koichi returns to after the end of the war. The population has already been defeated, and many of the returned soldiers live with both the shame of their loss and the realisation that they were never more than cannon fodder for empire. Familial ties are torn apart by death, and somehow, new connections and meaning have to be found in what is left, only to be again tested once Godzilla appears from the waves, like a personification of PTSD where trauma is ever-present.
The 2024 Korean horror film Pamyo (titled Exhuma in English) is a great example of film impossible to imagine removed from its cultural context. It is steeped in traumatic history and religious rites. The titular idea of exhumation – literal in the sense that the removal of a body from a burial site is at the center of the film – carries through as a theme of exhuming history, and finding more than one kind of monster in the process. The film is separated into chapters that could also be said to correspond with the process of disinterring, as the true story is revealed the deeper the main characters dig. The story begins when shaman Hwarim (a truly great Kim Go-eun, rightfully lauded for the performance) and her assistant Bong Gil (Lee Do-hyun) are hired by a rich man to investigate a curse that has befallen the firstborn males of his family. While his newborn son is in a hospital in the US, suffering from an undiagnosed illness, Hwarim and Gil team up with seasoned geomancer Kim Sang Deok (Choi Min-sik, from Oldboy) and mortician Ko Yeung-Geun (Yoo Hae-jin) race against time to lift the curse. They trace it back to the grandfather, a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers (the family’s wealth is based on a century-old betrayal), who is buried in an unmarked plot behind a locked gate, in the mountains near the border to North Korea. Geomancer Sang Deok immediately realises that the promised fortuitous plot promised to the buried man by a monk named “Gisune” (the first hint of how history will play into this story – it’s not a Korean name) is anything but, and the team sets up to remove the body, with the intention to cremate it without ever opening the coffin. This first part of the story almost functions like a self-contained film, and features the most haunting and memorable scene: Hwarim performs a mesmerising ritual before the coffin is removed, a stunningly choreographed dance featuring knives, guts, ashes and pork. Lacking the cultural context of the beliefs represented in the film, I could only be deeply moved by the aesthetics of the ritual, the sheer feat of the actress moving through the steps, all of which adds up to one of the most affecting moments of film I’ve seen this year (the closest reference point for emotional impact of one scene is Mariko’s attempt to leave Osaka castle in Shōgun – also a choreographed performance steeped in deep cultural meaning). The coffin is eventually removed from the plot, but a witless assistant in the funeral home the coffin is taken to makes the error of opening it before it can be incinerated. A spirit escapes, and takes full revenge on the family that has doomed him, from his perspective, to this grave – hungry because no sacrifices of food have been made to him in the century he has been buried, he kills all firstborn men except the baby, which narrowly escapes when the team manages to finally burn the coffin, just in time.
This is only half of the film, and what follows goes deeper into history. The burial of the collaborator (this dates back to the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945) is only the tip of the iceberg, and the geomancer feels compelled to dig deeper, feeling that there is more to uncover in this haunted place, when one of the men who have helped lift the coffin falls inexplicably ill. Deeper in the gravesite, the team discovers another, massive coffin, buried standing up, wrapped in barbed wire to either keep someone out or, more likely keep something in. The solution to this horrifying mystery that soon begins having a bodycount goes deeper into Korean history: the buried man is the beheaded body of the 16th century Japanese general who unsuccessfully tried to occupy Korea in a seven-year campaign just before the end of the Sengoku Period. His placement is part of an attempt to disrupt the Korean peninsula with the placement of metal rods at vital points (“The fox that bites the waist of the tiger”, separating North and South Korea) – although it takes the geomancer until the final moments of the film to realize that the General is carrying this rod in his body, in the form of a samurai sword. Without either knowledge of Korean and Japanese history and mythology, or the willingness to research them, many of the smaller details of the film would remain elusive for a Western audience, and yet they are exactly what makes the film so interesting and layered, and it wouldn’t be without the cultural specificity.
2024, directed by Jang Jae-hyun, starring Kim Go-eun, Choi Min-sik, Lee Do-hyun, Yoo Hae-jin.

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