The Priests (Geomeun Sajedeul)
Director/Screenplay – Jae-hyun Jang, Producers – Baek Ji-sun, Lee Yoo-jin, Oh Hyo-jin & Song Dae-chan, Photography – Nak-seon Go, Music – Kim Tae-song. Production Company – Zip Cinema
Kim Yoon-seok (Father Kim Bum-shin), Kang Dong-won (Assistant Deacon Choi Joon-ho), Park So-dam (Lee Young-shin), Kim Eui-sung (Dean), Son Jong-hak (Monsignor), Lee Ho-jae (Father Jeong), Nam Il-woo (Abbot)
Father Kim Bum-shin applies to his superiors in the Seoul Catholic clergy for permission to conduct an exorcism on teenage girl Lee Young-shin. However, this goes wrong and she attempts to jump from the window – only to survive the fall. Six months later, the clergy assigns naive young assistant deacon Choi Joon-ho to befriend Father Kim and become his new aide with orders to secretly videotape Kim as he returns to complete the exorcism. Choi has doubts about the existence of demons but begins to believe as he is drawn into aiding in the ritual of driving the demon out of Young-shin.
The Priests was a South Korean film that did some reasonable traction in was a very good year for Korean horror, also including Train to Busan (2016) and The Wailing (2016), all of which were released within an eight month period. The film was a directorial debut for Jae-hyun Jang who had made the genesis of it in the earlier 25-minute short film 12th Assistant Deacon (2015).
I have written on how tired the possession and exorcism film is starting to become and only consists of cycling around the same cliches and effects – vomitings, head turnings, the Catholic priests chanting “the power of Christ compels you” and so on. During the forty years since The Exorcist (1973) laid all of this down, almost nothing has been done to expand, theologically question the actuality or offer any alternate take on things. The Priests is no different to these. When it comes to the exorcism scene, the film is still reliant on the usual bag of tricks. The odd thing it does offer is that is made in South Korea and we see certain aspects of local religion – like choosing the exorcist based on their astrological year of birth, the use of a shamanistic ceremony in parallel to a Catholic one – that make for an undeniably fascinating fusion.
It took a long time for me to get into The Priests. It runs to 108 minutes long, just short of two hours. It is not until nearly the first hour is over that we get to the exorcism. This early section is taken up with some not too interesting stuff set around the church politics, the backstory of what happened at the previous exorcism and Deacon Choi’s meeting with Father Kim and preparations for the exorcism. The scenes are not unwatchable but they give the impression of a short film that has been given a good deal of padded exposition to bulk out the running time.
However, all of these issues are set aside when The Priests does arrive at the exorcism scene and Jae-hyun Jang finally delivers and gives the usual theatrics a highly entertaining workout. Besides all the usual bag of tricks, he has bugs and rats invading the room, the priests being taunted with hallucinations of sores on their skin, even a nifty trick where they spray themselves with ‘essence of women’ so that the demon cannot see them. The demon is a far more unusual character – it is very long lived and looks down on humanity as no more than apes, while longing for the time when they are extinct. In these scenes, Park So-dam as the possessed teenage girl gives a fantastically good performance. The only thing that weakens the film is the need to pad it out with a big scale climax as Kang Dong-on runs out onto the street with the pig pursued by cops and ends up causing a massive multi-vehicle pile-up. It is as though somebody mandated that the film had to go out with a bang instead of just finishing with the dramatic intensity of the exorcism scenes.