Ghostly Vengeance Double Feature – Japanese Cat Spirits and Korean Melodrama

Today I’m delving back in time into Asian supernatural cinema of the 1960s and the motif of the vengeful ghost. One film is a stately piece of carefully composed B&W cinematography informed by traditional Japanese literature. The other is a colourfully chaotic mishmash of Korean melodrama with barely believable plot contrivances propelled by a pulpish energy which still finds room for moments of contemplation.

Kuroneko [Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko] (1968) is a tale of supernatural revenge and doomed romance set in the late 10th century during a time of civil unrest in Heian period Japan. Yone (Otowa Nobuko) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Taichi Kiwako) live alone in a house on the fringes of a bamboo grove, forced to fend for themselves since their son/husband Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II) was forcibly recruited to fight for one of the warring clans. In his absence, a random raiding party of soldiers pillages their residence, rapes and murders the two women, and burns their house to the ground. After their black cat attempts to revive them by licking their corpses, the two women take new forms as vengeful shape-shifting cat demons whose purpose is to lure and kill lone samurai.

The opening sequence is filmed with subtlety and restraint. We first see the house in a wide shot at the left of screen, with the fringes of the bamboo forest prominent in the background. A scattering of men become visible emerging from the forest and undergrowth, slowly revealing themselves as a band of 20-30 soldiers silently approaching the lone residence. The camera doesn’t dwell on their violent activities upon entering the house, instead panning across the menacingly unemotional or leering faces of the men observing and waiting their turn. The opening wide shot is revisited as the soldiers silently return to the forest fringes. Just as the last man disappears into the bamboo, a huge cloud of smoke billows forth from the doorway, rolling across the screen in an eerie fashion more evocative of supernatural mist than a regular fire.

We next meet Shige waiting at the Rajō gate at night, enlisting the aid of a passing samurai to escort her home, as she claims to be afraid of bandits potentially lurking in the wood. Reaching her destination, she invites him into the mansion now mysteriously occupying the location of her old house. Yone plays the dutiful host while Shige plies the samurai with sake before inviting him to her bed. Yone performs a stately Noh dance in the corridor outside her room as Shige goes through the motions of seduction before transforming and tearing out the samurai’s throat with her teeth. And then the same thing happens again – an extended sequence of tricking samurai after samurai, accelerating the pace of the cutting with each repetition, largely following the same pattern with some variation. This section of the movie is a masterful mixture of shadow and light, white figures standing out in stark relief against the darkness, details of the background fading into pure black. Glimpses of the women’s supernatural nature are seen as they leap and tumble across the screen from right to left, a movement which resonates exquisitely with the earlier billow of smoke from left to right, creating the impression of a constant cycling back towards their instigating trauma.

At roughly the half hour mark, just when it’s beginning to feel like the movie is stuck in a loop of ghostly revenge, we learn what happened to the missing Hachi. Three years after his abduction, Hachi returns as the sole survivor of his war party, having slain the enemy general thanks to a lucky accident on the marshy battlefield. Inventing a more heroic-sounding story, he presents the general’s severed head to his leader, the historical figure Minamoto no Raikō (Satō Kei). Raikō rewards his victory by acknowledging his newly chosen name Gintoki and elevating him to the rank of samurai. Hoping to share his good fortune with his family, Gintoki’s joy is cut short when he discovers the ashes of his former home. The other peasants living in the area are unable to throw any light on the matter, having evacuated the area when Kyoto was burning – upon their return, there was no sign of the former residents.

With no more family and only his duty to his lord remaining, Gintoki returns to Raikō and is tasked with killing those responsible for the recent spate of samurai deaths, setting up the classic clash between duty and love which informs so many samurai tales. Shige and Yone recognise Gintoki as Hachi, but the terms of their new existence mean that they are unable to reveal their true identities to him – and, as a samurai, they are expected to kill him regardless of any past connection. Gintoki likewise recognises the women as his wife and mother, but is unable to settle on an explanation and keeps vacillating between the options. Are they amnesiac? Is the resemblance coincidental? Are they being impersonated by shape-shifting demons? Or are they actually his dead wife and mother? When Shige decides to betray her oath and resume their relationship, he is gleefully cooperative but still unable to determine whether she is really his wife. Even when he eventually seems to have accepted the truth, an anomaly in his mother’s reflection causes him to jump to the worst conclusion, leading to a confrontation which draws on a folk tale about renowned samurai Watanabe no Tsuna and his meeting with the oni Ibaraki-dōji. Although I don’t want to give away anything further about the conclusion, it’s safe to say that none of the trio get the ending they would have wanted.

Director Shindō Kaneto made his name, both in Japan and internationally, as a director of socially relevant political films. Onibaba (1964) marked the beginning of a new phase in his career in which began to integrate explorations of human sexuality into his films. Similarly to Kuroneko, Onibaba centred on an older woman (Otowa Nobuko again) and her daughter-in-law attempting to survive in the absence of their son/husband by killing lone samurai and selling their belongings. Satō Kei plays the sole survivor of the missing male’s war band, setting up a struggle for the affections of the younger woman, without whose assistance the older woman would be unable to survive. The critics who had championed Shindō’s earlier works tended to look down on these later productions, responding as if the use of these elements represented a betrayal of his earlier material, but it would be a mistake to characterise these films as lacking a political element. It’s telling that the band of samurai responsible for the raid which opens the film are never identified – from the point of view of the victims, it makes little difference which side they were on, as they are a symptom of a wider societal unrest which puts no value on the peasantry who provide the essentials without which their society couldn’t function. Gintoki’s return to his home in search of his family is met with suspicion – a man he used to know fails to recognise him in his new guise as a samurai and is clearly fearful of his attentions. When Gintoki attempts to explain the motivation for the killings later on, Raikō finds it inconceivable that anybody could possibly hold a grudge against samurai, since they supposedly exist to defend the lifestyle of “nobles and the masses” – but his own words and actions have shown that he holds both nobles and the masses in contempt, valuing only himself and those whose martial ability can be marshalled in service of his own prestige. Shindō’s sympathies are clearly with the oppressed as opposed to the much-vaunted honour system of the warrior classes, which is presented here merely as lip-service justification for self-aggrandisement at the expense of others. Hachi’s elevation in society fails to bring him happiness and ultimately undermines his attempts to reconnect with the beloved family unit motivating his actions.

Kwon Cheol-hwi’s The Public Cemetery Under the Moon [Wolhaui gongdongmyoji] (1967) is a far less polished film, but the demented glee with which it layers alternately melodramatic and supernatural plot elements gives it a fascinating drive which makes me wish that the print I saw had been in better condition. Thanks must go to Diabolique editor Kat Ellinger’s Cineslut Film Club for introducing me to this film, which marks the first occasion I’ve ventured into Korean cinema of the 1960s.

No sooner have the opening credits finished than a monstrous, decaying visage looms into view. He immediately tells us not to worry because 40 years ago he used to be a handsome narrator of silent films and he’s simply turned up to tell the tale of one of the cemetery’s many occupants. We’re then treated to 90 seconds of long dark hair streaming across the screen, blown about by a strong wind, against a background alternating between red and blue light accompanied by slow, rhythmic, echoing percussion. Suddenly a grave splits in half, revealing the body of our heroine Wol-hyang (Kang Mi-ae). Her burial shroud is stripped away, her eyes open and she emerges from the coffin. She reappears outside the cemetery, surprising a taxi driver who drives straight through her and crashes, only to discover her sitting in his back seat. She’s rather put out when he faints because – unusually for a ghost – she needs a lift to reach her destination!

Meanwhile, at said destination, Nan-ju (Do Geum-bong) – second wife to Wol-hyang’s husband Han-su (Park No-shik) and previously their cook – has bullied her mother (Jeong Ae-ran) into poisoning her baby step-son Yeong-jin so that they will be Han-su’s sole heirs. Having waited until he was away for a few days on a business trip, the sound of a car pulling up outside sends her into a panic. Her first thought is to greet her husband at the door with a knife in the throat before killing herself, but her mother persuades her that a more sensible option would be to welcome him inside before killing him and running away. Presumably this car is actually the taxi dropping off Wol-hyang to her old home, as the next thing we see is the materialisation of her ghostly form in her son’s room. Spotting the empty bottle of poison left next to her child, she manages to save his life via the recognised medical technique of breastfeeding, while the guilty Nan-ju is haunted by the ghostly strains of gayageum music which used to be heard in the house while Wol-hyang was alive. Wol-hyang disappears at the sound of the cock’s crow and the cessation of the gayageum’s plucking prompts the remaining two women to take another go at killing the baby, which is immediately thwarted by the premature return of Han-su, who had dreamed his son was in danger.

At this point the narrator decides to fill us in on the backstory, leading to the revelation that this story is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Wol-hyang, previously Myeong-sun, came from a wealthy background but was left to survive on the streets when her brother Choon-shik (Hwang Hae) and fiancé Han-su were arrested for protesting against Japanese imperialism. Once a promising student, Myeong-sun is left with no other alternative than to work as an “entertainer” for three years. She adopts the name Wol-hyang as a pseudonym for her unwanted career – leading to the puzzling question of why we were introduced to her under this name, as it seems unlikely that she would have retained this identity after marriage. The narrator seems to come to this realisation at the same time, because for the rest of the film he refers to her by her birth name Myeong-sun.

Choon-shik shoulders primary responsibility for the insurrection charges so that Han-su can be released sooner and rescue Myeong-sun from her life on the streets. Five years after his release, Han-su and Myeong-sun are happily married millionaires, thanks to Han-su’s freak discovery of a gold deposit (what?!), but Myeong-sun’s health is ailing due to concern for her brother (whose sentence has been increased to life due to his constant escape attempts). Or at least so everybody believes, because the superficially devoted servant Nan-ju has secretly been poisoning her. Although the doctor (Heo Jang-gang) immediately picks up on this, he takes the unusual medical stance of recommending a slower and less obvious method of poisoning in exchange for Nan-ju’s sexual favours.

As Myeong-sun gets sicker, Nan-ju begins making advances towards Han-su – and no sooner have they had sex, than who should turn up but the escaped prisoner Choon-shik, paying a last visit to his beloved sister before escaping to the countryside. There’s a few minutes of “who’s hiding under the sheets” farce before Choon-shik expresses his fury at his friend’s betrayal of his sister, leading the sick Myeong-sun to emerge from her room and pretend that she sent Nan-ju to sleep with her husband. This misguided martyrdom is intended purely to make her brother believe that she’s happy so that he will continue his escape. As soon as he’s gone she refuses to spend any more time with her betrayers, although somewhere along the line she gives birth to a son. Her enforced separation isn’t good enough for Nan-ju, who pays her gambling-addicted brother to pretend to be a “male caller” while Myeong-sun is dead to the world from sleeping pills. The hypocritical Han-su is furious at her perceived betrayal, refusing to believe she was unconscious even though it takes him a solid minute of shaking her before she’s conscious enough for slurred speech. He throws a shoe at her head and she commits suicide, leading to a rapid switch from melodramatic farce to an exquisitely poignant funeral scene in which several women dressed in white sit around her coffin while one of them sings the contents of her suicide note.

This marks the end of the extensive backstory flashback, leading to the final half hour of betrayal upon counter-betrayal upon haunting. Han-su now realises what a dick he’s been and refuses to let Nan-ju anywhere near his son, rightly suspicious of her intentions. He now blames Nan-ju for Myeong-sun’s death, which while technically accurate does elide a significant amount of his own responsibility for her unhappiness and consequent suicide. Han-su and Nan-ju race to get each other in trouble with the law, while the disreputable doctor attempts to lay his erotic claims to Nan-ju. The only people who seem to display any true regret for their part in events are Nan-ju’s gambling addict brother and their mother, who are the first ones to suffer ghostly vengeance. The increasingly frantic machinations of the remaining three characters keep the momentum going while Myeong-sun uses supernatural trickery to deal with Nan-ju and the doctor. Han-su is spared in order to raise their son, but a final encounter at Myeong-sun’s grave makes it clear that her brother will never forgive him.

While breaking the plot down to its bones like this lays bare many of the more ridiculous aspects of the story, it doesn’t really convey the chaotic energy which propels the viewer through the piece. It also obscures the level of skill involved in unfolding the various layers of the plot – it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s going on in the first parts of the movie (let alone why the story requires an undead narrator), but the pieces begin to fall into place as the backstory gradually unspools, setting up the conflicting agendas which crash against each other in the final third. Careering from the clumsy to the sublime, it’s an entertaining ride which is just begging for a decent restoration and re-translation.

I wasn’t able to find a proper trailer for my second selection, but this subtitle-free presentation of two short extracts provides a taster.

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