Sometimes a film’s title is the lure that draws you in, and sometimes it’s an obstacle that you might not get past without a gentle push. Well consider this the push you might need to seek out the new South Korean supernatural thriller, The Closet. The film features ghosts, an exorcist, dead kids, and some truly creepy sequences, but it’s at its most powerful as a commentary on the ways we fail our children. Indifference and abuse is already horrifying, but what if something even worse awaits them?
Sang-won (Ha Jung-woo) is an architect and single parent struggling to move past the recent death of his wife. He loves his daughter Ina (Heo Yool), but the combination of grief, debilitating panic attacks, and the risk of losing his job see him moving her further and further to the periphery of his life. A move to a new house in the country doesn’t help as she grows more bitter in response to his distance, and then one day she disappears. Weeks pass with no hope, and as the general consensus shifts to suspecting Sang-won of having killed his own daughter a man arrives claiming to know the truth. Kyeong-hoon (Kim Nam-gil) is an exorcist with a business card, and he believes Ina is trapped in the spirit world mere days away from being lost forever.
Writer/director Kim Kwang-bin makes his feature debut here and delivers a spooky, well-crafted supernatural mystery that ultimately becomes a story about consequences. The details are best left discovered with the film itself, but don’t be surprised if the film’s third act moves you from thrills and chills to heart break and tears.
Ha is well known from fantastic films as diverse as The Yellow Sea (2010) and The Handmaiden (2016), and he convinces here as a man torn by trauma into focusing on the wrong thing. His affection for his daughter is clear, but she’s also a reminder of the wife he’s already lost and the career he might still lose. Once she disappears, though, his heartache becomes are own. Kim, meanwhile, brings a degree of levity to a film otherwise populated with fear and heaviness, and his enthusiasm as an exorcist — a career choice in honor of his mother — sees him balancing playfulness and sincerity with a perfect touch. As with Korean cinema in general, the child actors here are equally as talented delivering range, conviction, and emotion that puts far too many Western kids to shame.
Director Kim moves smoothly from the ghostly mystery surrounding the wardrobe-like closet in little Ina’s room to the more full blown “ghost hunter” setup that comes with Kyeong-hoon’s arrival. The high tech gear doesn’t dampen the horror, though, and instead allows from some chilling beats including an extended sequence that finds Sang-won trapped in Ina’s room with his eyes closed — while surrounded by bad news. A later shift even deeper into the unfolding nightmare gives the film a certain Ray Bradbury-esque feeling that captures well the ideas of guilt and innocence lost.
There are some minor CG elements that miss the mark, but the majority of the film’s effects work effectively blurs the line between the real and supernatural worlds. Sharp cinematography goes a long way too moving viewers from the airy confines of a large, rural house to miserable shacks to a man-made forest funhouse and beyond. The score plays an equally strong role without over exerting itself, and jump scares are kept at an effective minimum. The horror here builds from devastating revelations into an atmospheric reminder that while actions have consequences so too does inaction.
The biggest issue with The Closet is that title — it underwhelms, it confuses with connotations, and worst of all, it’s dull. Don’t let that deter you, though, as the film is a rare combination of horror beats and emotionally affecting turns. The world is scary, and it’s our job every day to make it less so for those who depend on us, both because it’s the right thing to do and because the alternative might just be even more frightening.