Kim Go-eun kicks up her heels in a ceremonial robe to perform an ancient ritual in "Exhuma." Courtesy Showbox

Ever been to a Korean shamanic ritual? It’s awesome. There’s so much singing and dancing, it’s like a Broadway musical, but with a lot more animal blood. About half an hour into Exhuma, a shaman performs a rite transferring evil spirits from defiled burial grounds into five pig carcasses (or at least that’s the idea), and she dances around these spit-mounted animals with swords while wearing a colorful robe and slashing the pigs’ flesh. It’s not the exorcism ritual from Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing — that one had a table piled high with sausages and dead birds — but the spectacle of this ritual is just one reason why this movie has topped South Korea’s charts for five straight weeks and counting. It’s playing now at the AMC Grapevine Mills, and you can see what has put this film on track to be an all-time box-office champ over there.

Kim Go-eun plays the aforementioned shaman, who works with a young assistant (Lee Do-hyun) and an old geomancer named Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) to help wealthy South Koreans determine where best to bury their recently deceased loved ones. A Los Angeles-based businessman (Kim Jae-cheol) has a spot picked out on a mountaintop near the North Korean border for his elderly relatives, but when our heroes start excavating the grounds, they unleash evil spirits that hunt down the family members in L.A. and Seoul. That’s before they dig up the 15-foot-long coffin that was buried standing up in the hole, with barbed wire wrapped around it. They’re not dumb enough to try to open it, but the thing that’s inside bursts out anyway. It speaks Korean. It is pissed.

A fair amount of the movie clearly was filmed in Southern California — our first sight of Kim is him taste-testing the soil in a cemetery in Beverly Hills — so Korean audiences get to watch their big stars play out this Korean drama in a setting that isn’t overly familiar to them. Shamanic religions predate both Confucianism and Buddhism on that peninsula, and their colorful trappings are still as exotic to the people as they are to us. The characters bring different religious perspectives to the supernatural forces that they’re dealing with, and the funeral director who works with them (Yoo Hae-jin) is a devout Christian who quotes Ecclesiastes 4:12 to explain why he’s helping the shamans and Buddhists to contain the evil. Best of all, writer-director Jang Jae-hyun stages a number of scenes that will scare the casual horror fans who wander in here. There’s a particularly effective bit when the businessman’s aged grandfather (Jeon Jin-ki) accidentally lets a demon into his house in L.A. and can’t see the monkey-like being with his naked eye but catches its reflection in his window.


My duty as a critic compels me to state that the climax of this 134-minute film pales considerably compared with the stuff that has come before. Still, Kim Go-eun (who starred in the Korean TV adaptation of Little Women that’s currently on Netflix) easily carries the dramatic load and Choi Min-sik (from Oldboy and The Admiral: Roaring Currents) gives his role a grizzled, weary authority. Maybe the best thing that Exhuma does is afford a view of a fascinating part of K-culture that even Americans steeped in it might not be aware of. Someone should get a shaman to the AMC Grapevine Mills and see if it’s a proper place for a kut ritual, complete with a percussion ensemble and offerings of ayu sweetfish and soju. Wouldn’t that be something to see at the multiplex?

Starring Kim Go-eun and Choi Min-sik. Written and directed by Jang Jae-hyun. Not rated.