Superstitions can be ridiculous, but how we adhere to and pass down these traditions is interesting. Am I really going to break my mama’s back if I step on that crack? Probably not. Regardless, it couldn’t hurt to avoid it. Mark me down for holding my breath while driving past a cemetery too. In other words, we avoid bad luck or at least the idea of it. We try to stay positive, wanting the best outcome for us, our mama’s backs, and the supernatural karmic balance of reality. Enter Kang Park’s Seire, an old-world folk custom where new parents essentially go into lockdown with their newborn baby to protect it from malevolent forces and bad luck. This period lasts for three weeks.
Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) is a new dad skeptically undertaking the Seire tradition with his superstitious wife, Hae-mi. When a college friend alerts Woo-jin to the death of his longtime ex-girlfriend Se-young, Woo-jin decides he wants to go to the funeral but has trouble telling his wife about breaking the custom. Catching up with his old college friends at the wake, Woo-jin becomes enchanted by Ye-young, Se-young’s twin sister, and begins experiencing a series of events that may make a believer out of him after all.
Kang Park’s film is shot incredibly, an ominous and foreboding film appropriately mired in dread and retribution through a tonally cold color palette. The patience on display in the cinematography steeps you in the film’s atmosphere, with drone shots from right behind Woo-jin providing an isolative third-person perspective on par with some video game experiences. Seire’s tone magically fills viewers with a choking, panicked terror that resides somewhere between the anxious depressiveness of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and the characters’ dumbfounded shock after fervent denial of any paranormal occurrence in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing.
I often thought of heavier supernatural horror films like Shutter or The Grudge (Ju-On) as I watched Seire. Shutter had similar themes of haunting an ex, a specter infringing on the lives of a settled couple, while The Grudge attended to grief. Seire comes at you with a combination of these thematic elements, leaving you to constantly wonder if something supernatural is actually happening in the film or if this is a reaction to the fear and stress put on Woo-jin by becoming a new parent. New parents endure late nights, constantly doubt every action, and some have difficulty seeing their partner the way they did before they gave birth. Woo-jin seemingly develops a what-if about a past beau. Almost every strange occurrence Woo-jin suffers in Seire can be explained via a logical or psychological reason, but realizing that makes it very captivating.
Perhaps my favorite part of this film was watching Woo-jin seamlessly navigate his dream life and reality. When you combine insomnia with significant life changes, as Woo-jin does by being a new parent, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. I think many have experienced this with stress, often having benign consequences, thinking they turned in a report at work only to realize that it was in a dream. In Woo-jin’s case, he’s intertwining the women in his life as his conscience prepares him for Se-young’s death. The whole affair plays out wonderfully in the film’s opening moments, persisting throughout and adding to the prowess of his non-committal status to both his wife and son as he enters fatherhood.
From the start of Seire, it’s evident that Woo-jin isn’t ready for fatherhood. His nightmares concerning rotting apple seeds affecting two apple halves have him eagerly volunteering to leave the house on late-night trips to the store to retrieve more. When his baby cries, he looks at Hae-mi with the same blank, expressionless stare as Jack Nance in Eraserhead. And there are beautiful comparison shots of the way Se-young’s body is wrapped for burial and how I-su is wrapped for comfort at one point, giving the viewer the idea that Woo-Jin doesn’t want this baby. For most of the film, Woo-jin is a stranger to his son, rarely ever acknowledging the child beyond his incessant cries.
While your typical ghost story aligns with the living hero, Se-young’s unfinished business exposes how vile Woo-jin is, especially in his emotional immaturity toward the feelings of those he supposedly cares for. The viewer watches Woo-jin gravitate to Ye-young while duplicitously trying to keep the peace with Hae-mi at home. There’s a blatant disregard for women emanating from Woo-jin, especially regarding aspects of life that men can and will never be able to experience. Woo-jin sees these women as emotional and demanding. As the events surrounding his breakup with Se-young are attended to, there might be a sliver of empathy, but the viewer could perceive a particular hug as a sigh of relief. The journey may be about Woo-jin’s struggle to save his newborn, but the women in his orbit provide a much clearer image of who Woo-jin is.
There’s a powerful moral about ego and deception told vividly through the mysticism of superstition in Seire, and it’s a beautiful nightmare to behold. This film may not satiate those looking for a body count, but there are scenes that will draw the breath right out of your lungs. Fans of any of the aforementioned films will truly enjoy the feature, and I’d recommend any of the works of Bi Gan, who also creates excellent dreamlike films (Long Day’s Journey into Night, Kaili Blues) though without a moral horror story attached.
You can check out the trailer for Seire here.