Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A slow burn of a film which disturbs and unsettles, recalling insomniac night and too-bright mornings, a familiar world where everything seems slightly askew."

Worldwide, almost half of deaths of children under five occur during the first month of life. A number of different beliefs and traditions have grown up around this, with many cultures holding that during this period the soul is less securely attached to the body and therefore malicious spirits represent a serious danger. In Korean tradition, this is addressed through the rituals of seire, which limit the number of people in contact with the baby (effectively reducing the risk of infection until it has developed a proper immune system) and institute a number of specific taboos, many of which also have benefits for the recovering mother. Belief in seire, which is customarily maintained for 21 days, has declined significantly in recent years, but there is nothing like the emotional turmoil of becoming a new parent to prompt one to cling to tradition.

This film focuses on Jin Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo), who is finding new fatherhood overwhelming. He tries hard to perform his proper role, providing support and comfort, bringing his wife Hae-mi (Shim Eun-woo) sanhujori foods like carp tonic (which promotes lactation), but clearly feels pushed out and lonely, as partners often do, because she is so intently focused on little I-su. Meanwhile, I-su’s crying means that he’s getting little sleep. When he brings home a bag of apples which appear to be rotten but which Hae-mi sees no problem with, it seems that he may have begun to hallucinate due to the stress. Apples in Korea are traditionally offered as an apology, and he is obsessed with his own shortcomings. No matter what he does, it seems to be wrong.

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Woo-jin’s moral difficulties grow when he learns of the death of a former girlfriend, Se-young. To go to her funeral would be to breach the seire protocol, but he feels terrible about the idea of not going, especially as – it is implied – there was unfinished business between them, leaving him with an additional burden of guilt. When he decides to go anyway, he is emotionally rattled by the discovery that the dead woman has an identical twin sister, Ye-young (Ryu Abel). She is determined to get to the bottom of what happened between them. As she and Woo-jin become increasingly focused on one another, I-su becomes ill, prompting Hae-mi to blame Woo-jin for breaking the taboo. Woo-jin becomes ever more unstable as he struggles with unresolved feelings about his past relationship and grows to suspect that Se-young is reaching out from beyond the grave to threaten his child.

There is a lot to unpack in this multi-layered drama, and still more for viewers unfamiliar with the elements of tradition and ritual laced throughout. Central to it all, of course, is the question of whether we are watching Woo-jin’s mental health collapse or something supernatural really is taking place. It’s fairly common to see women in this position in films, especially in relation to pregnancy and childbirth, but rare to see it happen to a man, and the astute script teases out very particular anxieties whilst revealing the huge amount of material available to be explored in this regard.

Woo-jin’s confused feelings about his ex seem to be intensified by that sudden panic which can develop in early parenthood, at the recognition of how many life options one has just shut down. He and Hae-mi both experience feelings of helplessness, but as far as I-su is concerned, she is in absolute command, and at times he cannot even get near to the child he is desperate to protect. Meanwhile social anxiety becomes entangled with the fear of malevolent forces, and his fear of what he might have done spills over into fear of what he might yet do.

Seo is wonderful in the lead, honest enough with the character to let viewers feel deeply for Woo-jin despite an awareness of (at least some of) his transgressions. Début director Park Kang resists the temptation to layer on the special effects, instead letting small things say a lot. The result is a slow burn of a film which disturbs and unsettles, recalling insomniac night and too-bright mornings, a familiar world where everything seems slightly askew. It teases viewers by raising relentless questions which it never fully answers, but is all the better for preserving that element of mystery. There are a couple of gory moments, and nervous parents of parents-to-be may want to wait a while before they watch it, but the deepest chill resides in the simplest of moments, the strangest of mysteries, a soft drawn breath.

Reviewed on: 11 Jun 2023
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A new father strives to protect his baby for the 21 days during which it is vulnerable to spiritual attack.

Director: Park Kang

Writer: Park Kang

Starring: Seo Hyun-woo, Ruy Sun-young, Shim Eun-woo

Year: 2021

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: South Korea

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