Written and directed by brothers Jeong Beom-sik and Jeong Sik, Epitaph is not your standard Asian ghost story. Yes, there’s some gore and blood splatter as well as some seriously creepy moments, but it’s also a drama about love and loss and how we deal with that loss….in a weird and supernatural kind of way.
With framing scenes set in 1979, the bulk of Epitaph takes place in 1942 at Anseng Hospital in a Korea occupied by the Japanese military. Dr. Jung Nam has been given an old photo album that was found in the old hospital building that is being torn down. Thus opens three stories with the good doctor reminiscing about his days as a medical student.
Jung Nam (Jin Ku) has been assigned to work in the morgue and on his first night there the body of a beautiful young woman is brought in, and he falls in love with her—or rather the idea of her. We learn that Jung Nam is betrothed to the young daughter of the hospital’s director, who took him in after Jung Nam’s parents died. The girl and Jung Nam have never met but there seems to be a sense of obligation in the young man.
Asako (Ko Ju-yeon) is rushed into the hospital for treatment after a horrific car accident that took the lives of her mother and Japanese step-father (we see Jung Nam taking the mother’s body to the morgue). Dr. Soo-in (Lee Dong-kyu) is treating the girl who is at times catatonic and being haunted by the events leading up to the accident. She has no physical injuries but Dr. Soo-in thinks she is suffering from survivor’s guilt.
The mutilated body of a young Japanese soldier is brought to the morgue (and Jung Nam is there) and Dr. In Young (Kim Bo-kyeong) and her husband Dong Won (Kim Tae-woo) are investigating the possibility of a serial killer targeting Japanese soldiers. Dong Won begins to suspect his wife may somehow be involved as she is sometimes not in bed late at night and she casts no shadow.
Epitaph is an anthology, of sorts, but the stories weave in and out of each other and the different characters interact with one another throughout all of the stories. And the hospital itself is a character in the movie, as well as being central to the story. At times, it can get a bit confusing as the scenes will jump into a dream sequence without warning, but if you pay attention, it will all make sense in the end. Overall, I think the Jeong brothers did a fantastic job with Epitaph. The individual stories are all engaging and each has its own level of creepiness and gore. I also like that the film isn’t a straight-up anthology with breaks in three separate stories. I really enjoyed the overlap but also felt it was better suited to telling the story of the hospital and not just the people in it. All of the main characters interact through the three stories and to separate them would have made for a disjointed movie.
The movie is beautifully shot and is accompanied by a haunting soundtrack that also includes a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). A dream sequence looking at the life Jung Nam sees for himself is done with a minimalist eye, yet it practically screams for the love the young medical student wants. Another fantastic scene comes when Dong Won realizes that his wife casts no shadow. He has brought In Young a snow globe depicting a couple sitting on a park bench and she comments how it looks like them when they sit together in the hospital’s garden. He holds the globe up to a light so the shadow appears on the wall. The shadow of the globe looms large in contrast to the lack of In Young’s shadow on the same wall. It is evidence of a love lost, but not what you think. And the nightmares experienced by Asako are terrifying and violent. Asako is clearly suffering from more than just survivor’s guilt and her idea of love has some serious consequences.
While giving horror fans what they are looking for in a movie, Epitaph is actually quite sad and very tragic. None of the stories end well and everyone is left deeply affected by the events they ultimately deal with. It is at times frightening and unsettling, but also thought-provoking, subtle and deliberately paced. The film is available on DVD through TLA Releasing and has a runtime of 101 minutes.