Film Review – Exhuma



Tense, chilling, and multi-layered, writer/director Jang Jae-hyun’s Exhuma (2024) is a spooky horror mystery. To say that this is only a ghost story would be insufficient, as Jang starts from a supernatural/occult angle but uses it to broaden his thematic scope. There are elements of family legacy, the bond between humans and the natural world, and even the complicated history between South Korea and Japan. This is a lot of ground to cover. Admittedly, western audiences may find some trouble navigating the heavy mythology surrounding Jang’s narrative. There were moments where I felt a little lost, possibly because of my lack of cultural understanding. But the storytelling is so strong, the twists so surprising, and the performances so believable that it made for compelling watch from beginning to end.

Viewing it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of David Fincher. While the material may not be Fincher-like, the tone is very much familiar to the likes of Zodiac (2007) or Se7en (1995). The clinical, detail-oriented processes the protagonists go through to unravel the secrets contain the same tenor. Coincidentally, like Se7enExhuma also involves a mysterious box that should or shouldn’t be opened. Jang eventually takes things to a different level, especially in the second half. The procedural style makes way for a more bombastic, extreme approach. This sudden change is a huge swing, and some viewers may not vibe with how the gears shift so suddenly. However, I found the switch fascinating. It kept me on my toes – I thought I had an idea of where things were going but that all disappeared once the film entered the latter stages.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re introduced to four primary characters, all of whom have experience working with the supernatural. Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) is an expert shaman, who – along with her protégé Bong-gil (Lee Do-hyun) is sent to Los Angeles to investigate a paranormal illness. A wealthy family has offered a hefty sum to have a former patriarch dug up from their grave and possibly relocated, in hopes that it will rid the living descendants of hauntings. This peculiar request has Hwa-rim and Bong-gil call upon the help of renowned geomancer Sang-duk (Choi Min-sik) and mortician Young-geun (Yoo Hai-jin). Bouncing between L.A. and Korea, Hwa-rim, Bong-gil, Sang-duk, and Young-geun go through the rigorous ordeal of exhuming the remains from their resting place, while also going through the complex steps to protect themselves from otherworldly repercussions. Of course, given that this is listed in the horror genre, we can surmise that not everything goes according to plan.

The grave (and coffin) operates as a kind of Pandora’s Box, in that we are sure that only bad things could be locked inside. But because of the monetary offer and because the characters are so confident in their abilities, the temptation is too strong not to go through with it. But right away, we get a sense that they are stepping into dangerous waters. Jang’s direction – along with Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography and Jeong Byeong-jin’s editing – create a visual aesthetic that puts us at unease. The camera captures the characters digging up graves from the point of view of the coffin, making it feel as though we were the ones laying inside of it. There’s excellent use of reflections as well. Windows and mirrors work as portals for us to see the demons – their blurry images creating a spine-tingling effect. 

Exhuma has striking moments all throughout, but especially in the second half. I will not describe in detail what happens, but I will say that the story gets flipped upside down with a shocking revelation. This causes the narrative to take on a more sinister and unpredictable quality. Jang uses this as an opportunity to really play with the imagery, going for big and splashy shots. This includes the characters writing scripture all over their faces and bodies as protection. It’s such a bold look that of course it would be used on advertisements, trailers, and posters. Another remarkable set piece involves an actual fireball hurtling across the sky. I have no clue what the budget was for special effects, but I’m assuming a lot of it went to this sequence. The fireball looks so realistic, from the flames trailing behind it to how it lights up the night sky, that it is more convincing than just about anything else you would see in a typical summer blockbuster. 


Although there is plenty of intrigue to keep us glued in, the character work was underdeveloped. Hwa-rim, Bong-gil, Sang-duk, and Young-geun are defined by their occupations. Sure, there is little background given – Sang-duk mentions that he has a daughter who is engaged to be married – but these are thin at best and don’t really leave a lasting impact. This becomes evident once the narrative dives into the bizarre, almost absurd nature of the back half. We get so wrapped up in the over-the-top scenes that the character development has no choice but to take a backseat. In the world of the film, the foursome exists mainly because they are good at what they do, and when they work together make a formidable team against evil spirts.

I’m sure if I had a better understanding of the history, culture, and mythology of what was being presented, I would have a much deeper appreciation of Exhuma. But even without that knowledge, the sights, sounds, atmosphere, and performances made this an effective and unnerving experience. Taking it at face value – from the scares, shocks, and suspense building – it clicks on all cylinders. Jang Jae-hyun made a dense yet accessible horror flick. Anyone willing to give it a shot will be rewarded.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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