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February 04, 2009

The Uninvited (2003)

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4 Inyong Shiktak
Lee Soo-youn - 2003
Panik House Region 1 DVD

This is one of those times when one wished for a little more imagination in choosing titles. The translated title from Korean would be "Table for 4", which might suggest for some a family comedy or romance. In fact that title is something of a giveaway regarding the plot to this film about alienation and an overwhelming sense of despair in urban Seoul. This is a ghost story which owes some debt to The Sixth Sense, but also to Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now with its sense of inescapable fate and the degree in which architecture and the environment dominate the characters.

In Lee's film, there is little solace in family, friendship, friends, pets or religion. People live in apartments in highrises that are little more than glorified boxes, coffins if you will. There is little to indicate that personal spaces have more than functional use, with bare walls and little evidence of the touches that personalize a home. Jung-won, an interior designer, lives in one such apartment that appears to be essentially a home office with a bed. While he is capable of resolving issues for others concerning the use of office space, he is at a loss regarding his own life and sense of self. Accidentally injured on his forehead, a coworker thinks he is only joking when he describes Jung-won as messed up inside. Jung-won's personal life is dominated by his fiancee, Hee-eun. A wedding is planned for the two, with Jung-won sheepishly going along with Hee-eun's plans. Hee-eun criticizes a comment made by one of Jung-won's friends that marriage and children are hell. Hee-eun has set up the kitchen space in Jung-won's apartment with a small table with overhead lights that spotlight each person. Hee-eun compares the table to a stage with actors, but the effect is one of emphasizing the separation of people while sharing the same space. The themes to be explored by Lee are also announced when Jung-won quietly steps into his apartment to find Hee-Eun in the midst of drilling in the lights, with her comparing his entrance to that of a ghost.

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Jung-won's passive existence is thrown into disorder when he wakes up at the end of the line in a subway, alone with two young girls who are seemingly left sleeping. It is later through news reports that he learns the two girls were left to die, munching poisoned cookies provided by their mother. The ghosts of the two girls appear to haunt Jung-won. Into Jung-won's life also appears Yun, a narcoleptic, who first appears as the patient of a psychiatrist, whose office Jung-won is redesigning. Yun also goes to the church run by Jung-won's father, in Ilsan, a suburb northwest of Seoul. When Yun collapses on the street, Jung-won takes her to her apartment. Yun appears to casually notice the two ghosts, appearing as though asleep in two chairs. Yun not only sees the ghosts that have attached themselves to Jung-won, but sees the part of Jung-won's childhood that he has forgotten, that determined much of his life.

In The Uninvited, children and parents perceive each other as monsters. The horror in the film is what these parents and children do to each other. Family is presented as an artificial construct, to be used or discarded as needed. It is worth noting that in this film, written and directed by a woman, that most of the men are little more than helpless observers. The women's actions are presented as reactions to a sense of hopelessness, disconnection from themselves as well as others. For Jung-won, Hee-eun represents a world of normalcy that he is part of only because he is suppose to be part of that world. Yun is both attractive and repulsive because she is able to share those parts of Jung-won's life that he has tried to hide or deny from himself.

Lee also plays with the the perceptions of sleep and death. When Jung-won wakes up in the subway, it is almost suggested that the remainder of the film is his dream. Jung-won suffers from nightmares from his repressed childhood, misinterpreted as pre-wedding jitters by Jung-won's father. The two dead girls, making this film tangentally a tale of two sisters, appear to be asleep. Yun's narcolepsy is explained as an unconscious defense against seeing too much, her ability to see the dreams of others. In The Uninvited, the characters are either spiritually dead, or attempting to rebel against a life that whether real or imagined, is overwhelmingly horrible.

The official website for The Uninvited offers some of Lee's own thoughts on the themes of truth and memory. An in-depth interview with Lee would be in order to understand more of her thoughts and intentions. Some of the religious imagery is in need of some explanation. The large, colorful swastika that appears in one scene may alarm those unfamiliar with its earlier symbolism prior to Nazi usage. There would appear to be more than meets the eye in the use of the spiral as a visual motif as well. I could find nothing of substance on Lee at this time other than that The Uninvited was her debut feature, that earned a degree of critic respect if not praise, but only modest success at the box office. There is no indication of any newer work by Ms. Lee at this time. Whatever faults one might find in The Uninvited, they are not to be found in the filmmaker's incisive eye, or an ambition that lies beyond genre conventions.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 4, 2009 12:14 AM


Thank you very much for writing this great review. I love this film, but it's hard to find someone in Thailand who can write interestingly about this film. Most viewers in Thailand don't like this film, because it is not a standard horror film.

My most favorite scene in this film is the one in which the heroine and a female stranger with a pet are in the lift together. The stranger tries to talk to the heroine, but the heroine is not in the mood for talking. I think I understand the heroine’s feeling very well. Sometimes I feel very alienated, without apparent reasons.

I feel very attracted to the world depicted in this film, though it’s very difficult for me to describe what attracts me to it. Your review, in a way, helps make me understand better why I love this film or helps verbalize what I like in this film. I think the reasons why I love this film include:

(in your words)

--“In Lee's film, there is little solace in family, friendship, friends, pets or religion.”

--“In The Uninvited, children and parents perceive each other as monsters. The horror in the film is what these parents and children do to each other. Family is presented as an artificial construct, to be used or discarded as needed.”

Posted by: celinejulie at February 11, 2009 03:57 AM