Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Jung Huh
Writer: Jung Huh
Producer: Kim Mi-hee
Stars: Jung-ah Yum, Hyuk-kwon Park, Rin-ah Shin, Jin Heo, Jun Hyeok Lee, Yu-seol Bang, Yool Lee
A mother grieving for her missing son moves her family to a mountainside haunted by a creature capable of mimicking humans.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to the urban legend of South Korea’s ‘Jangsan Tiger.’ Named for the Busan mountain where it reportedly dwells, the white-furred beast is said to lure human prey by making sounds akin to a woman’s wail or other mimicked noises. As for the why or how behind any of it, well, the tiger’s tale doesn’t really have many more stripes than that.
That’s still enough of a seed for “Hide and Seek” (review here) writer/director Jung Huh to sow with his sophomore feature. “The Mimic” uses the outer rind of that hollow folktale to frame a ghost story involving personal tragedies connected to a cursed creature. Familiarity keeps Huh’s smoldering thriller from reaching a full boil, yet supernatural suspense stays simmering with a menacing mood insistently bubbling underneath.
“The Mimic’s” first act sets exposition on the table in a slightly erratic order. Core characters and conflicts make themselves readily available for easy digestion. It’s the ancillary side stories that are a little less clear about how they connect. Part of the point involves unfolding events in a manner where minor mysteries are maintained until revelations are ready for unveiling. The film isn’t hard to follow, though some mental backtracking may be necessary to piece together how certain people play into the plot.
Hee-yeon’s troubled family continues confronting heartbreak on multiple fronts. Five years ago, Hee-yeon’s young son went missing without a trace. Today, she faces a difficult decision regarding her mother Soon-ja’s worsening dementia.
Hee-yeon’s husband Min-ho suggests institutionalization, but Hee-yeon isn’t willing to lose another loved one. She opts instead to move their family, which includes daughter Jun-hee, to the Jangsan countryside where the elderly woman grew up, hoping a nostalgic feeling might soothe a senile mind. Their new home stands near an old forest. That forest leads to a cave containing an evil entity. And that evil entity exploits grief by impersonating the dearly departed, in turn leading vulnerable mournful to unfortunate ends.
“The Mimic” does multiple things well. In a top spot on that list sits Jung Huh’s adeptness at fostering wrenching melodrama that lends the film’s underbelly an earnest emotional charge.
Reminiscent of “The Babadook” (review here) in terms of how thoughtful themes are applied, thriller elements operate as meaningful metaphors musing on compassion, forgiveness, and coping with tragic loss. Haunting horror makes its presence known. But the movie’s maturity adds depth to the dread through tear-jerking human drama whose sentimentality rarely turns into a soap opera.
Huh’s primary shovels for digging into this layer are actresses Jung-ah Yum and Rin-ah Shin. Jung-ah Yum remarkably covers the full range of Hee-yeon’s colors, from emotionally damaged wife and daughter to willfully oblivious surrogate mother of a mystery child. As the mystery child, Rin-ah Shin’s likely unawareness of exactly what movie acting even entails works to an impressive advantage in creating a scarily vacant yet endearing conduit for otherworldly evil. There isn’t a weak link among the cast, but these two ends pull the chain of intriguing tension taut.
Slack on that line stems from mildly muddled mythology as well as one too many creepy movie clichés. Jung Huh can have a pass on the former for adapting a thin legend that doesn’t afford much material for mining to begin with. But several blind spots in his fiction fudge whatever “rules” exist regarding the creature. For instance, mirrors supposedly bind the beast to an ethereal plane, yet its mobility never seems hindered since the entity appears able to walk into reality at will.
Tuning into the film’s tone also requires tolerance for scary movie standards such as an ominous old woman who appears early to issue a cryptic warning no one would heed from a scraggly stranger. Of course, she reappears at the 11thhour to fill in missing details the protagonist needs, yet apparently hadn’t earned until the film reached act three.
“The Mimic” relies heavily on terror techniques like slow dolly moves toward distant darkness. Nevertheless, Jung Huh’s effective employment of atmospheric imagery and audio frosts the film with a fine sense of subtle fear. Even in using traditional takes on old horror tropes, Huh finds artistic ways to balance new ideas as he shapes “The Mimic” into one of Korea’s finer supernatural chillers.
NOTE: The movie’s Korean title is “Jangsan-beom.”
Review Score: 75