Is anyone up for another exorcism movie? For those who have been to cinematic Hell and back with just a few of Hollywood’s underwhelming attempts to revitalize the religious shocker in the past half-decade – The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Possession (2012), The Devil Inside (2012), Deliver Us from Evil (2014), The Vatican Tapes (2015) – the answer will probably be a resounding “no”. However, it would be worth keeping a little faith for Jang Jae-hyun’s debut feature The Priests, which covers familiar ground but nonetheless does so with a classical confidence missing from many of its American equivalents.
Lifting a few plot points from William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1973) but adapting them to the context of a skeptical contemporary Korean society, The Priests focuses on the efforts of two representatives of the Church to save Catholic schoolgirl Young-shin (Park So-dam), who has been showing signs of demonic possession. The priests here (or ‘Black Priests’ in the film’s original Korean title) are Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok), a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking maverick whose judgment is often questioned by his superiors, and Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won), who has been called in at short-notice to act as the veteran’s assistant. It’s a pairing that occasionally gives the film the feel of a supernatural buddy movie – as attempted by Scott Derrickson’s pairing of a street cop and a Spanish priest in Deliver Us from Evil – with their occasionally tense partnership underscored by Choi’s filming proceedings at the Church’s request to determine if Young-shin’s problems have, in fact, been caused by sexual abuse at the hands of Kim.
Expanding the story of his award-winning short 12th Assistant Deacon (2014), Jang takes his time with the build-up but any nagging sense that he is merely biding his time until the main set-piece is kept at bay thanks to ambiguous characterization, sub-plots regarding the Church’s concern about negative publicity, and a strong sense of foreboding as the capable but naïve Choi realizes that he is entering the presence of true evil. Interestingly, the Church is steadfast in its belief that Young-shin can only be saved through a successful exorcism, but are so worried that such practices are now considered ludicrous by the general public that they endeavor to keep Kim’s assignment as under the radar as possible. They are also deeply suspicious of the principal exorcist, who is established as a somewhat belligerent personality for a man of the cloth. There’s an early scene in which Choi goes to visit Kim’s previous assistant from an initial, failed attempt to evict the demon from Young-shin, and finds that his predecessor has not fully recovered from the experience. Aside from an ill-advised comedic establishing montage for Choi that is perhaps a concession to the local youth market (the student is shown cheating in an exam and sneaking out of the dormitory at night to buy alcohol), the well-judged first half of The Priests manages to combine the traditional with the modern as the streets of globalized Seoul gradually darken as the showdown approaches.
The actual exorcism is predictably overwrought, but no less gripping for it, with Jiang ramping up aural atmospherics, and grotesque make-up, not to mention adding some unlikely black humour in the unfortunate predicament of the pig that, in accordance with tradition, has been selected to contain the demon once it has been expelled from its current host. Park makes for one of the most convincing victims of possession since Linda Blair, spewing out gallons of blood and delivering sadistic taunts that prey on the tortured backstories of the priests, but also conveying terrified innocence when granted a brief respite in-between bouts of spiritual confrontation. Anticipated histrionics aside, Jiang keeps the exorcism grounded by largely using practical effects and focusing as much on the interplay between Kim and Kang – who by this point have settled into a mentor/protégé dynamic – as the demon’s wickedly gruesome displays of resilience.
Jiang is too in thrall with the tropes of the exorcism sub-genre to do anything radically new with them, but The Priests is so sincerely committed to ticking all the boxes that its old-school approach results in one of the most rousingly effective horror films in recent years.
The Priests is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Thursday June 23 at the Walter Reade Theater at 9pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.