Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘The 8th Night’ Fails to Build Tension

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The 8th Night is a South Korean thriller suspense movie that offers very few thrills and seems incapable of building suspense. It’s all the more infuriating because, at times, the film demonstrates a flair for visual storytelling and atmosphere. But by the end, I found myself more exasperated than entertained.

In the interest of full disclosure, some of my disconnect with Kim Tae-hyung’s debut may be due to certain aspects of the culture getting lost in translation. The story of The 8th Night comes from Buddhist legends and mixing in other elements of Korean culture. But the script, also by Tae-hyung, can never make up its mind whether to make sure we understand or if it would be better to keep us wondering.

The result is a movie that explains certain plot elements to near exhaustion while making other aspects of the story murky and purposefully confusing, only to try and explain it all in the last half of the movie. By that time, I was long past caring about the Red Eye, the Black Eye, or even the end of the world as we know it.

In a movie that involves a disgraced monk destined to battle the forces of evil on a mission to kill a virgin girl to keep the evil spirit from entering our world again, there is a stunning lack of any urgency. “2,500 years ago, a monster started opening the door that bridges the human realm to hell to make humans suffer.” That’s the opening line of the movie.

I’m sorry to report that despite the promising awesomeness hinted at by that opening salvo, much of The 8th Night dithers about being scared of its own shadow. The story goes on to tells the legend of the Diamond Sutra. The Buddha appeared before the monster, tore out its eyes, the Red Eye and the Black Eye, and buried them in the East and West. The eyes being the source of its power, were caught by the Buddha and buried in Śarīra caskets.

The 8th Night starts with the Red Eye discovered by an archaeologist, Professor Kim Jun-cheol (Choi Jin-ho). But when he unveils his discovery to the world, the Red Eye tricks people into thinking it is a fake, and thus, the archaeologist is shamed and shunned from the community. But after years of being ridiculed, Joon-cheol decides to prove everyone wrong and “open up the door to hell.” His words, not mine.

Again, if this sounds interesting, I’m sorry. It’s merely the product of trying to explain the dense lore behind a movie that does nothing with it. After meeting Professor Joon-cheol we are introduced to a wizened old Buddhist monk and his charge Cheong-seok (Nam Da-reum), a young novice under a vow of silence. The old monk notices the blood moon and knows what must be done; he dies in his sleep. The monk leaves behind a message for Cheeng-seok to find Park Jin-soo (Lee Sung-min), a former monk.

Together Cheong-seok and Jin-soo will track down the last “step” and try to stop the Red Eye from crossing over. But, first, they must get rid of the “step,” meaning a human body. In other words, they have to kill the virgin girl who has been preordained by destiny to help open the door to hell. If it feels like I have to explain a lot, you have some idea of what it’s like to watch The 8th Night.

So each day is meant to be step represented by a murder. Each passing body or day draws us closer to the apocalypse. But the mythology is so dense, and characters spend so much time explaining it to one another that every time we see it’s a new day, it serves more of a reminder of how slow the movie is moving instead of what it is meant to be, a ticking clock.

However, The 8th Night is not a wholly bad film. On the contrary, the transitions from one scene to the next, while annoying because of all the moving parts, were visually creative. It’s a wonder of modern cinema just how visually dull movies are in how they jump from one scene to another, that when you stumble across a film that isn’t afraid to get creative, it gives you hope as a movie lover. 

The cinematographer, Choo Kyoung-yeob, does a beautiful job both in the transitions and in setting the scene’s mood, frequently despite the film’s dense lore building. For example, in one scene, we see Park Jin-soo, the disgraced monk, sitting in a darkened room, a small candle casting his shadow on the wall behind him. Kyoung-yeob and Tae-hyung find little ways to add to an overall eerie tone. They make it appear as if Jin-soo is not alone; shadowy hands seem to grow from his shadow and disappear.

Characters will often look into a mirror and see things behind the reflection that are not there in reality. It’s in these little moments that The 8th Night shows promise and is the most effective. Of course, these are never enough to create a jump scare, but they are enough to craft a mood, if only for a short while. 

Except Tae-hyung has too many spinning plates to allow for any sustained tension. The deaths of the stepping stones have no weight and usually happen off-screen. The characters and the events never seem connected until midway through the movie when the film tries to show us how everything is connected, but by then, we don’t care because the movie hasn’t been playing fair.

I wouldn’t mind if it cheated, honestly, as long as it had been entertaining or in any way effective. But, instead, I found myself continually yanked out of the movie just as I was getting sucked in because of an abrupt tonal shift or the way the film handles character beats with little to no actual care.

The novice monk, Cheong-seok, has taken a vow of silence. His master has told the young boy that he must be silent until he tells him he has served his vow. Then he dies. 

Cheong-seok still keeps to his vow, though, until he breaks it in excitement after meeting Jin-soo and just being about the world. At first, he is horrified, but Jin-soo doesn’t seem at all bothered. All of this is well and good, except, later on, Cheong-seok has gone back to his vow of silence. But later on, he breaks it. But we never know why he felt the need to go back to observing the vow or why he broke it the second time.

I haven’t even gotten to the homicide detective Kim Ho-tae (Park Hae-joon) investigating the mysterious murders. Or the virgin girl, Ae-ran (Kim Yoo-jung), who, while prophesied, isn’t given any character development until just before the last thirty minutes or so. The film is so secretive that we immediately guess her secret.

During the climactic battle, when the two monks go toe to toe with the Red Eye of the monster for the world’s fate, I must admit to being impressed by the music. Shim Hyun-jung’s score, which had been relegated to the background up to this point, is freed from the confines of the film’s myth-building. The bombastic flare gives the confrontation the operatic oomph lacking in so much of the movie. Hyun-jung’s music combined with Kyoung-keob’s camera work suffuse into a genuinely engaging moment.

Tae-hyung plays the final battle between the monks and the demon-possessed corpse with aplomb and almost saves the movie. Almost, as eventually, it goes back to its old tricks, and soon all the pomp and artifice leak all the suspense from the picture. But for a brief few scenes, the film showed the promise of the filmmakers and all involved.

Sadly, in the end, The 8th Night is so contrived and tries so hard to conceal its surprises that I found myself uninterested in the fate of the characters, much less the world. Movies are like magic tricks, and as such, even ones you’ve seen a thousand times can still keep you on the edge of your seat. But if the trick is fumbled too much, you’ll find yourself bored. Because, of course, the magician was going to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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