Content warning: this review contains mentions of suicide and death by hanging.
This review contains mild spoilers.
Korean folklore has long been a fertile breeding ground for both Korean drama and horror. From mega-hits like Guardian: The Great and Lonely God, to the terrifying gem that is the film The Wailing, there is a rich treasure trove of creatures, curses, and magic available for anyone willing to delve into one of Korea’s most ancient cultural elements. And, much like The Wailing’s use of shamans and their rituals, the latest SBS drama Revenant takes on the world of ghosts and possession with a traditional twist and a core of fear.
From the mind of Kim Eun-hee, the writer behind Signal and Kingdom among others, comes this chilling, engrossing horror-mystery starring Kim Tae-ri, Oh Jung-se and Hong Kyung. A measured yet impactful show, Kim manages to weave a narrative encompassing multiple folkloric features without overcomplicating the plot. This allows the performances at the story’s centre, particularly Kim Tae-ri’s, to shine. It is by turns genuinely frightening and quite moving, but as it reaches the halfway mark, it remains tight and intriguing.
Much like many of Kim’s other projects (Kingdom and Jirisan being only the most recent examples), Revenant is certainly not light-hearted fare. The central storyline is introduced through a folklore professor, who is visited by a spirit in his huge, traditional Korean-style Hanok house. This is not a friendly visit: ominous knocks on the door and shadows of figures with wildly waving hair in the first few minutes let us know this.
After opening the door to these knocks (who answers a knocking door on a dark night anymore?), the professor is confronted by himself smiling back, before we cut to his mother discovering his hanging body moments later. Not exactly a laugh-a-minute.
As the episodes progress, it is revealed that this death was the result of an evil spirit who was somehow connected to this professor, which in turn latches on to his daughter, the down-and-out student and part-time worker San-yeong (Kim Tae-ri). Enlisting the help of different folklore professor Yeom Hae-sang (Oh Jung-se) who, like her father, has an expertise in Korean supernatural traditions, the two form an uneasy bond as they try to figure out what is happening to her. Their investigations run parallel to those of detectives Seo Mun-chun (Kim Won-hae) and Lee Hong-sae (Hong Kyung), as more and more unusual deaths start to surround San-yeong in the present and past.
The deaths in question are almost as universally chilling as the one that opens the entire show. The modus operandi of the central ghostly spirit is to force victims to hang themselves, and as a result there is an almost overwhelming amount of imagery of people hanging. Indeed, it even features in the illustrated opening titles for the series. It is a stark, powerful and deeply upsetting image to see, and thus one that needs to be used carefully in order to be effective.
Thankfully, Revenant manages to achieve this well, through a considered approach to storyline and cinematography, as well as a reflection on the deeper social resonance that this concept might have. The characters that we see dying in this manner (though there are other methods employed, like jumping off buildings) are largely given backstories, motivations, and character development, even whilst being secondary to the main players.
For example, in episode 2, we learn that Professor Yeom’s mother died at the hands of this spirit when he was a child. Through short snippets in flashback, we meet his concerned mother realising what will happen to her, and hear her begging for her son to escape in her final moments. It is a difficult scene to watch, but it gives the necessary emphasis to the horror at hand. The cinematography helps by being both discreet when needed (we are mostly not exposed to gory or unnecessarily prolonged shots of bodies, but rather see glimpses at certain angles) and intensely close-range prior to death, to reveal the full fear of these victims in these moments.
These touches of extra storyline also nod to the very real causes of suicides in our world, separate from ghosts and spirits. In episode 3, the central mystery revolves around suicides taking place on the site of an ancient ritualistic village. These suicides are ultimately the result not of anything supernatural, but of the fear and shame of being in huge debt to a predatory loan shark. Along with an earlier bullying-suicide storyline, these touches are able to ground the drama in the true poignancy and tragedy of suicide, and steer it away from becoming a gimmicky or trivial take on the topic.
In fact, for a show with such a supernatural force at its core, Revenant is remarkably restrained. The first and most recurring image that we see of the evil ghost spirit is that of the silhouette of a woman with long, floating hair, as if it’s in water. This silhouette becomes attached to San-yeong after her handling a cursed hair accessory, and it is seeing this shadow that alerts us to the ghost’s presence. It is a striking cipher of evil, achieved with subtle CGI that only adds to an atmosphere of dread, rather than undermining it.
This subtlety extends to Kim Tae-ri’s performance as San-yeong. It’s no surprise that she is a highly skilled and versatile actress, but here the delicacy of her talent shines through. Again, rather than any grand use of makeup or effects, the moments when San-yeong becomes possessed by the evil spirit are denoted by the shadow and Kim’s performance. It is her subtle changes of posture, her turn from a down-beaten working woman to a maniacally smiling figure, the glint of her eyes and the tone of her voice, that let the audience know what is happening. She handles these turns expertly, never leaving any doubt as to when San-yeong is herself, and when she is not.
Revenant carries a lot of these delicate touches across its first half, with the use of mirrors adding to the presence of shadows as the (somewhat literal) gateway for San-yeong to see the dead spirits that most others cannot. This gives us shady figures in the background, one-second glimpses, and, most overtly frighteningly, a mirror figure standing up and moving while its real-life reflection stays asleep. Though there are occasional missteps from this delicate approach (there are scenes where we can see ghosts more clearly, and their makeup is a lot more stereotypical and thus underwhelming), it ultimately makes for a greater sense of foreboding as the episodes continue.
As we reach the halfway point, episodes have so far been well-paced and well-acted. Whilst Oh Jung-se is perhaps a little monotone in his performance of the folklore professor following in the footsteps of San-yeong’s far more eccentric-seeming father (played by Jin Seon-kyu), he gels well with San-yeong’s young cynic. Their continuing search for the spirit possessing San-yeong, and an explanation of its legacy, is combined effectively with the stand-alone stories of separate episodes.
Their arch also aligns neatly with that of the two detectives investigating the case from the procedural, logical side of the coin. It is maybe a little on the nose that one of these detectives happened to go to school with San-yeong, but Kim and Hong Kyung’s performances thus far are restrained enough to not make this plot point feel too melodramatic.
Ultimately, Revenant hits the halfway mark with an effectively frightening storyline that manages to intrigue as to what the bigger picture is without forgetting the smaller details. There are plenty of questions yet to be answered, and presumably more folklore to dive into as the source of the evil spirits surrounding our central characters becomes clearer. It is certainly as dark a take as any, and the mere subject matter may be too distressing for some. However, it is sensitively handled in a solidly built story.
Kim Tae-ri is a particular standout, and hopefully the layers of her performance will also build as the episodes continue. Revenant is Korean folklore at is most chilling, but also its most complex. Hopefully the various strings it is holding will continue to weave together neatly, without falling or tangling on the way.
(Images via Disney+, SBS.)