DISCLAIMER: The following essays contain spoilers!
Koreatown Ghost Story. 2021. Directed & Written by Minsun Park & Teddy Tenenbaum.
Starring Margaret Cho, Lyrica Okano, Brandon Halvorsen, & Minsun Park.
Not Rated / 15 minutes
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Despite not being a big horror-comedy fan there’s a big horror-comedy vibe in the early minutes of Koreatown Ghost Story—directed and written by director duo Minsun Park and Teddy Tenenbaum—that I found to be a whole lot of dreadful fun. One of the reasons I love this short so much after seeing it during Fantasia is how Park and Tenenbaum transition from a somewhat playful horror atmosphere into pure, haunting dread. Their film’s story follows a girl called Hannah (Lyrica Okano) going to visit Mrs. Moon (Margaret Cho) for an acupuncture appointment. What begins as a normal, if not slightly personally invasive appointment veers into totally uncomfortable territory, as Mrs. Moon pressures Hannah to find a man for herself—like her son, Edward (Brandon Halvorsen)—to the point she’s going to extreme lengths. All of a sudden, Hannah’s in a terrifying position, trapped in Mrs. Moon’s house, and they’re about to be joined by something terrifying Mrs. Moon’s conjured.
The immediate enjoyment in Koreatown Ghost Story, apart from Margaret Cho having a ball with her character, is the way this story plays with ideas about traditional Korean values. First it’s the mention of Chuseok, which Mrs. Moon calls “Thanksgiving meets Halloween” when people feed themselves, as well as “the spirits of the dead.” Then the short quickly moves onto tradition concerning Korean families. Mrs. Moon represents traditional views and an older generation, as she tells Hannah “You should get married” to a man who’ll provide a proper inheritance, and not long later says the young lady would “make a pretty good wife for the right boy.” As the story unravels in properly horrific fashion, Mrs. Moon reveals Hannah and her son Edward were arranged to be married long ago, thus the terror emerges as she’s preparing to make sure her boy gets what he was promised; though Edward’s actually, y’know, dead. My favourite moment is when Hannah must deglove her ring finger to remove a ghostly wedding ring placed on it—a nasty, appropriately awful piece of symbolism. This short film is a tiny masterpiece containing a solid laugh or two amongst the creeping terror, and, above all else, provides several supremely creepy images that are unique horror unto themselves.
La Oscuridad (English title: The Darkness). 2019. Directed & Written by Jorge Sistos.
Starring Cuauhtli Jiménez, Ixchel Flores Machorro, & Teresa Sánchez.
Espejo Humeante Films / Simplemente
Not Rated / 10 minutes
Drama / Horror
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Sometimes a film affects me deeply, on a level that’s inexplicable no matter how many ten dollar words I spew onto the page, in spite of the many ways I try to communicate the effect. Jorge Sistos’s La Oscuridad is one such film: a magical realism horror story about a woman named Marina (Ixchel Flores Machorro), a former schoolteacher, who emerges from a lake looking like a ghost or a reanimated corpse; she heads back into town where she confronts a man she knew, Mario (Cuauhtli Jiménez), however, their reunion doesn’t come without terror, violence, and blood. This short feels somewhere between a George A. Romero film and a feminist twist on a Gabriel García Márquez short story.
“Do you like to be treated badly?”
Sistos does so much in La Oscuridad with very little. I don’t mean that there’s nothing going on in the film, because there’s a lot going in just ten minutes. What I mean is that Sistos uses little dialogue to convey a ton of character and story, relying on the stunning, quiet performance of Machorro as Marina to carry most of the plot. There are miles of atmosphere in the cinematography. On top of that, the political history of Mexico rears its head, even if only for a brief few seconds, with the school Marina taught at while she was alive named after Belisario Domínguez Palencia—a physician and liberal politician who gave a memorable speech in Congress during the Mexican Revolution against Victoriano Huerta, for which he was murdered.
Best of all is how Sistos tells, what I consider to be, a zombie story that mixes with ghost lore. We often hear the theory that ghosts have unfinished business and they won’t let go of their place in the physical world until they finish it. Marina’s part zombie in the sense she resurrects out of the lake where she was left dead, but she’s just as much part ghost, going back to the old school where she taught to find Mario, the principal, who killed her. Once she gets bloody revenge, biting into the man like an apple, she again returns to the lake, unfinished business now complete, and sinks back into the water slowly. La Oscuridad reanimates zombie and ghost lore from being so tiresomely used over the course of film history, giving these figures fresh, new life through a woman so strong she comes back from the dead to get revenge for her brutal mistreatment. Easily one of the best horror shorts I’ve seen; beautiful and haunting in equal measure, a poetic, traumatic film.