The Korea Herald


[News Analysis] Behind the box office success of thriller ‘Exhuma’

Details, topics, ensemble, movie’s clear goal explain film's surprising performance

By Kim Da-sol

Published : April 2, 2024 - 17:47

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“Exhuma” (Showbox) “Exhuma” (Showbox)

For the first time in Korean cinema history, a mystery thriller film on the occult phenomenon has hit the milestone 10 million admissions mark. “Exhuma,” the most-watched film so far this year, surpassed that mark just 32 days after opening in February.

As of Tuesday morning, “Exhuma” had recorded more than 11 million ticket sales in a country of fewer than 52 million people, with the film now poised to become the 22nd highest grossing film within the entire breadth of Korean cinema history.

The movie’s distinctive and detailed story concerning a simultaneously unprecedented yet familiar topic along with a great ensemble cast have contributed to the movie’s success in Korea and abroad, especially in Southeast Asia.

“Exhuma” (Showbox) “Exhuma” (Showbox)

Finding Easter eggs

Many filmmakers strive to make a movie that becomes the talk of the town.

The rich details of “Exhuma” are constantly being discussed in online communities, in YouTube videos and via social media platforms, as moviegoers eagerly share small details or obscure references they have found in the film.

The film is largely split into two parts, with the second part delving into Korea's complicated, torturous history spanning centuries with Japan. The relatable historical context piques both intrigue and curiosity, as cinemagoers discover and interpret hidden messages, such as those concerning the iron stake myth, car license plate numbers and even the names of the four protagonists.

Sparking curiosity

“Exhuma” begins with a wealthy Korean family in Los Angeles reaching out to two young shaman exorcists for help, who determine that a new resting place is needed for the deceased ancestor.

While concepts of feng shui, yin and yang, the five elements and the local funeral culture are nothing new to domestic audiences, the use of Korean folk religion is nonetheless a novelty that has proved attractive to a wide range of moviegoers.

Data from cinema multiplex chain CGV showed that moviegoers for "Exhuma" were well-distributed across all age groups, with people in their 20s and 30s accounting for 56 percent of those buying tickets. Those in their 40s and 50s, meanwhile, accounted for 38.5 percent of the "Exhuma" viewers.

Before "Exhuma," supernatural, mystery and thriller films had a relatively low reception among the general public here, typically seen only as favored by fans of the particular genres. “Exhuma” broke through stereotype and prejudice by employing a topic that is relatively unprecedented at the cinema, but at the same time very familiar to so many.

“Exhuma” (Showbox) “Exhuma” (Showbox)

Outstanding ensemble

It is not an exaggeration to say that the ensemble cast of "Exhuma" has been pivotal to the movie's success.

The film is Choi Min-sik's first supernatural thriller in his highly celebrated 35-year acting career. Athe ever-versatile Yoo Hai-jin plays Young-geun, an indispensable character whom director Jang Jae-hyun said improvised many lines to make the character feel close to the audience.

Meanwhile, the two young, stylish shamans – played by Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun – shatter cinematic preconceptions of exorcists as scary, strong characters who are essentially untouchable and inscrutable.

While the two longtime veterans of Korean cinema, Choi and Yoo, lead the overall plot in a stable, weighty mood, the two rising stars in Kim and Lee stylishly entertain moviegoers with their multifaceted performances. Many viewers have pointed to Kim’s makeover as a shaman exorcist dancing with a knife with blood on her face, and Lee’s acting in both Korean and Japanese while possessed by a spirit, as essential and memorable scenes.

Filmgoers are already eager for a sequel or spinoff to find out what happens next to the four central characters and to dig deeper into their personal stories. They have been posting their own art and illustrations of the characters online, as some have taken to calling the four characters the “Myovengers” -- a portmanteau from the Korean title of the movie, “Pamyo,” that likens them to Marvel's Avengers.

“Exhuma” (Showbox) “Exhuma” (Showbox)

Goal is to entertain

Although the movie is a thriller covering occult phenomena, Jang's overarching intention was to make an entertaining film.

“I focused on making a movie that can offer pure joy to the audience. I tried to focus on portraying genre fun and I think that appealed to a wide range of audiences around the globe,” Jang told reporters in an interview in Seoul last month.

Critics have echoed the view, adding that the movie had a clear goal and a conclusion that evokes a pleasant sensation.

“The fact that occult genre films are not popular is because, due to its nature, the genre doesn’t offer a clear ending or show why it happened, and the audience is left with a vague, ambiguous conclusion," pop culture critic Jung Deok-hyun told The Korea Herald. "That's what makes occult films more mysterious and scary -- the reason why such films are only liked by genre fans,” Jung said.

“But in ‘Exhuma,’ the identity of something vicious emerges and even gets clearly punished by the main character -- a director’s choice so as to appeal to a wider audience. And this offers a feeling of satisfaction after the movie ends. This is why the movie has become a popular occult film here,” he added.

“Exhuma" is currently screening in local cinemas.