AKA: Ghost of Oksu Station
Director: Jeong Yong-ki
Cast: Kim Bo-ra, Kim Jae-hyun, Shin So-yul, Obon, Kim Kang Il, Kim Soo Jin, Kim Kwang Hyun, Kim Na Yoon, Park Jae Han, Kim Ku Taek
Running Time: 80 min.
By Henry McKeand
“Write a provocative article with a clickbait headline!”
This is one of many pieces of questionable advice given to Na-Young, the journalist protagonist of Jeong Yong-Ki’s The Ghost Station. Played by Kim Bo-ra, she’s the standard cinematic reporter: young and ambitious and borderline obsessed with getting the next big story. As a junior writer for a middling gossip rag, her desire to do serious work is at odds with the salacious reality of her actual job.
The quote could also be seen as a sort of mission statement for the film, which takes a blunt-edge approach to a type of supernatural material that is so often given the slow-burn treatment. It cribs from a wide variety of influences, most notably Y2K J-Horror. Then, in its brief runtime, it streamlines the nightmare-fuel imagery from those classic films and makes sure that crowd-pleasing thrills come first and foremost. Even the unimaginative title feels designed to be as broad and straightforward as possible–the movie equivalent of clickbait.
For some, this might be damning criticism. The trendsetting films of masters like Kiyoshi Kurosawa were defined by their ability to slowly and insidiously worm their way into our collective subconscious. They took their time and tapped into fears that audiences didn’t even know they had. They were anything but cheap entertainment.
So, no: The Ghost Station is not going to be the next The Grudge. The overall lack of original images pretty much ensures that it won’t have the same impact on the genre as its forebears. However, those of us who pine for a return to the turn-of-the-century golden age of Eastern horror aren’t necessarily looking to see the wheel reinvented in real time. In fact, a well-made, fun throwback like The Ghost Station might be just what the doctor ordered.
The plot, which follows Na-Young as she investigates a series of odd deaths in the seemingly mundane Oksu Train Station, rarely feels like more than a way to connect a series of jumpscares. Investigative scenes are usually the weak links in ghost films (“Time to search ‘Weird Sightings’ online and talk to an eccentric ‘expert’ who knows exactly what’s going on!”), and this is no different. In fact, the answers are given far too easily and frequently; the best films of this ilk maintain some level of cosmic mystery right up until the end credits. Everything here is too literal-minded to stay with you for more than an hour or so.
But that series of jumpscares? In the heat of the moment, they’re pretty damn good. Jeong’s direction is sturdy, and his ability to mine genuine shock out of a decades-old formula is impressive. Sure, nearly every scare has the same formula: a character slowly looks up at a hitherto empty space and sees the bloody face of a ghostly child. Hell, the ghost design isn’t even that scary! None of this changes how tense it feels while watching. Maybe it’s because I watched it alone in a dark room, but there are some real “turn down the volume and look away” moments. One set piece involving the face detection feature on a smartphone camera is particularly brilliant (it feels impossible that no one’s tried it before, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it).
That being said, these sequences would be truly memorable if more thought was put into the actual story. The “how” of these scares is awesome, but the “what” and “why” feel instantly disposable. It’s a shame, given the talent involved. Even as I clocked the Japanese influence, I had no idea while watching that the script was penned by J-Horror icons Hiroshi Takahashi (writer of the 1998 Ring) and Koji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse). Shiraishi, especially, is one of the only working filmmakers with an interesting approach to found footage horror; would his presence behind the camera have turned this into a minor classic? Perhaps, but the script itself feels more like a pastiche of genre conventions than anything else. It manages to pack in a creepy stone wishing well (The Ring), a creepy subway station (Marebito, Silent Hill 4), a creepy afterlife grudge (The Grudge, obviously), creepy viral videos (every other horror film of the past two decades), and creepy children (every horror film ever).
This kind of familiarity rarely breeds fear, but it can make for fun pastiche. How often does a horror movie really understand its purpose, let alone give you the goods? The Ghost Station does, and it even respects your time at only eighty minutes. It’s not a great film, but it’s fast and fun and unpretentious. In 2023, that’s a thing of beauty.
Henry McKeand’s Rating: 6.5/10