Off the rails

Jeong Yong-ki on divergent horror traditions and The Ghost Station

by Paul Risker

The Ghost Station
The Ghost Station

Based on the Oksu Station Ghost, an episode of Horang’s webtoon, Korean director Jeong Yong-ki's The Ghost Station unites him with Takahashi Hiroshi, writer of the original Japanese horror sensation, The Ring.

Along with screenwriter Lee So-young, the trio centre on Na-young (Kim Bo-ra), a gossip journalist desperate for clicks. She learns, from a friend who witnessed a fatal accident in Oksu Station, about a series of unusual and fatal occurrences. Sensing a compelling story, Na-young uncovers past misdeeds that continue to torment the souls of the forgotten victims.

The Ghost Station marries Japanese and Korean horror aesthetics to tell a story about surviving the supernatural, as much as the cutthroat world of gossip journalism.

In conversation with Eye For Film, ahead of the UK premiere at London FrightFest 2023, Jeong spoke about the Japanese and Korean, Western and Eastern cultural influences on horror, and acknowledging real life crimes and tragedies.

Paul Risker: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Jeong Yong-ki: It's not easy to specify when I started dreaming of becoming a movie director, but there's an episode that I remember. Since I was very young, I loved watching classic American and European movies on TV every weekend. However, when I was about 10-years-old, there was a weekend when I couldn't watch a movie because our TV was broken. I wanted to see a movie so much that I played a trick. At that time, my mother used to go to church every weekend and pray all night. There was a TV in the church. I told my mom that I wanted to go to church and pray, and she took me. That night, I could watch the movie I wanted to see. It was such a happy time and I was so sleepy after the movie that I didn't want to pray, but I had to go into the chapel and pray to keep my promise. I was thinking about what to pray about, and that night I prayed that I wanted to make movies. It was quite an impromptu prayer, but I prayed for more than 20 minutes, and in the end, God answered my prayer – he made me a movie director.

PR: Some directors use extreme analogies to describe filmmaking - like going to war, having a baby, or they even describe it as being traumatic. How would you describe making films?

JY-k: I don't think movies are just for the director – a movie should belong to everyone who participates, from the producer to the youngest person that’s in charge of the props. That's why I don't want to give a very grand meaning to what a film production is.

For me, movies are my life - a very ordinary life. I like to have my kids go to school, come back home and write scenarios. When I'm done with a tough shoot, I like to have a cool beer with my colleagues and enjoy a joke. I don't want to make a movie that’s like going to war. I want it to be endlessly peaceful and enjoyable. I don't want anyone to get angry or yell. All I want from those participating is amazing concentration and love for the movie.

PR: How did you become involved in adapting The Ghost Station, and what was it about the original webtoon that made you want to adapt it into a feature film?

JY-k: The producer who first planned the work wanted the The Ghost Station to feel like a Japanese horror movie. That's why I asked Takahashi Hiroshi, a Japanese horror film writer, for a scenario. However, the scenario was so Japanese that it needed an adaptation to suit the Korean sentiment.

Korean and Japanese horror may feel similar in the west, but there’s a lot that’s different - that’s why I got involved in the adaptation.

The original is a short webtoon with a few stories, however, the webtoon Oksu Station Ghost presented the world's first moving flash video. Readers who were familiar with webtoons that, like cartoons, had no movement, were surprised, and they screamed when a moving scene suddenly came out on a computer screen. It was shocking at the time and left a strong impression on me, and because of that memory, I was willing to direct the film.

PR: I'm intrigued by cultural influences on horror, especially how Western and Eastern horror contrast.

JY-k: There are monkeys, dogs, and bananas. When asked to choose two things that are related to each other, most westerners choose monkeys and dogs, whereas Koreans choose monkeys and bananas. The reason is that western people value identity more when recognising things, whereas Korean people value interrelationships more. Unlike westerners, who focus more on the identity of both monkeys and dogs as animals, Koreans focus more on the interrelationship that monkeys love bananas. This point is also seen in horror films.

In Western horror, characters or demons that are the subject of fear are depicted only as beings that the main characters must avoid, or remove. There is a story about how the object of fear was created, but it is not important, and there is a perception that evil in the end, is only evil. On the other hand, in Korean horror films, how the object of fear was created is a very important factor. The object of fear is mainly caused by resentment, and the only way to escape from the object of fear is to release the grudge. It’s the general formula of Korean horror films, and it’s a formula used for The Ghost Station.

PR: How does The Ghost Station convey specific cultural influences and traditions?

JY-k: The ghosts who are the objects of fear are victims of very bad things that happened in the past. When no one recognises what they have been through, the resentment builds up and they kill people. At this stage, Western horror films solve problems by defining and removing the object of fear, such as evil spirits, or by leaving the area. However, The Ghost Station finds the cause of the incident. This is because there is a cultural tradition that if you find the cause and soothe your original soul, or release your grudge, then the curse will be lifted.

The story seems to end as the main characters also find out the cause and soothe their souls, but the curse continues without ending. It’s because there was no atonement for those who provided the direct cause for it to happen. In addition, the movie says that the curse will last forever because they will never atone.

In the past few years, there have been tragic accidents in Korea, such as the sinking of a ferry, the Sewol, and the Itaewon disaster. The Korean people feel ashamed, and they wanted those responsible for the incidents to be held accountable, but no one was. There is a sense of unease that such a tragedy will not end unless someone is willing to take responsibility, and this is the sentiment of the film.

PR: The investigative narrative is a key part of the genre. How do you perceive the way it influences the tone of the horror in The Ghost Station?

JY-k: As I said earlier, Koreans prioritise the relationships when recognising objects, and detection descriptions are a very important factor in The Ghost Station. This is because the characters believe that the truth of the incident can soothe their original souls. Children, numbers and wells, these clues were arranged and gradually exposed to approach the truth, which took the form of a thriller.

I think that was an important factor in sustaining the tension throughout the movie. As an aside, all four-digit numbers in The Ghost Station point to specific dates. They’re the dates of child-related crimes and terrible accidents in Korea. I hid these tragedies in Easter eggs inside the movie, in the hope that they will not be forgotten and will be remembered by the Korean audience.

PR: Do filmmakers shape the horror genre, or are filmmakers now influenced by the traditions? Can horror continue to evolve, or has it reached its limit? How do you view The Ghost Station within this context?

JY-k: The Ghost Station is a work created with the motif of a modern reinterpretation of traditional Japanese horror films, from the golden age of the early 2000s, such as Ring and Ju-on. So we went through the hands of a Japanese screenwriter and had homage everywhere. I also incorporated the camera angles of classic Hollywood films and completed the film with 100% hand-held filming techniques. In this way, all movies are influenced by tradition and aim for the future, and so is The Ghost Station. I believe that horror movies will continue to evolve in the future, by mixing them with the tropes of other genres.

PR: Horror, beneath its surface, can be built on simple notions of right and wrong, which fate avenges. The intriguing aspect of The Ghost Station was the focus on the gossip tabloid - the greed for attention, for clicks, and ultimately for financial rewards. There's also the selfishness of characters who are cursed, and driven by their survival instinct, and are willing to condemn someone in their place.

At a glance, the film could be read as a cynical and dark take on society, but the protagonist offers a glimmer of hope. Thinking about the film, it draws attention to how horror is about where darkness and light, cynicism and optimism meet.

JY-k: There are two kinds of fear in The Ghost Station. The first is the fear created by the resentment of the victims. The second is the pressure of the heroine's success as a newcomer to society, her boss gaslighting her, and gender conflict (recently, there has been a change in values that recognises women in their 20s as direct competition. This creates a kind of victim mentality and sensitiveness for women of a certain age, who do not serve in the military, unlike men who are obligated to serve).

In The Ghost Station, these things are intertwined with one another, constantly creating conflict and fear. The person standing at the center is Na-young. She struggles to survive in a competitive society, while trying to save her friend's life. In the end, none of them succeed, but Na-young does not give up on surviving until the end. The last bit of hope is this heart, that does not give up on itself under any circumstances. There’s a willingness to continue to take one step forward to survive, because overcoming fear is, after all, hope.

London FrightFest 2023 screened the UK Premiere of The Ghost Station.

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