Tae-Kyeong Kim Sees Dead People

Tae-Kyeong Kim photographed by Twenty Seven and a Half Photography

Considering his first-hand experiences with ghosts, it’s no surprise that Korean director Tae-kyeong Kim is a rising star in the horror world. Kevin Withers investigates.

by Kevin Withers

As director Tae-Kyeong Kim wrote the script for his first movie, Dead Friend, he felt as though he was being watched.  It was quite unnerving to him because he was alone in his office at the time.  It wasn’t until he could feel hair brushing against his cheek that he knew for sure that someone was there.  While to most people this kind of thing is annoying, it was downright terrifying for Kim.  You see, that someone in the room with him is dead.

The 37-year old South Korean director is recreating the scene for me from his position across the table in the bland and drab press office of the Chicago Film Festival.  There is a stark contrast between the very vanilla nature of the room where we’re speaking and the otherworldly tales that Kim is describing.  These are the kinds of stories that would seem more at home in a cemetery or around a campfire in the woods on a moonless night, not inside an office in a high rise with florescent lights humming above.  Kim presents himself though a variety of energy and emotions and speaks with such sincerity that I’m unable to look away from him despite the fact that he occasionally lapses into Korean to convey his points.

He switches from a look of bemusement to one of fear as he describes the feeling of having the spirit’s hair pressed against his face.  Kim holds his hands less than an inch from his nose to show me how close the apparition was.  “I was frozen,” he states, “And felt like I might lose my mind.”  He was too petrified to confront the ghost, so, he rationalizes, he did the only thing he could think of: he didn’t stop writing until the scene he was working on was finished.

Before I can respond to Kim, he launches into another experience he’s had with the undead, prompting me to wonder just how many ghosts the man has seen.  “I was working in my office after midnight,” Kim begins, “and nobody else was there.”  Kim leaps out of his chair and rushes over to a window, keeping the urgency of his story alive.  “There was a small window in my office and I just saw legs passing by it,” he says.  At first, he didn’t believe what he had witnessed.  Why would anyone accept that they had just seen the reflection of a cut off pair of legs floating in a window?  Kim thought it was possible that he might have been fooled by his own reflection, but after walking by the window several times, he realized that that was not the case.

“My staff also saw the legs,” Kim quickly adds, answering the question I am thinking—“Are you sure this wasn’t all in your head?”—before I’ve had a chance to pose it.  He retakes his seat, pauses and begins to laugh.  He’s thought of another ghost story.  And like that, he’s out of his chair again.

In a weird way, it’s somewhat comforting to learn that a man who has had multiple encounters with ghosts is writing and directing supernatural horror films.  Of course he is!  Kim smiles at this.  “The feeling of horror is very special and distinct when compared to other feelings and emotions,” he tells me.  He makes sure to convey that he has personally felt the paralyzing fear that the undead can cause.  He draws from his experiences in this realm to create a realistic sense of anxiety and terror in his movies; much to his actors’ chagrin, Kim feels strongly that the best way to film believable, raw reactions from his cast is to actually scare them.  When you see people screaming in his movies, you can rest assured that they are truly scared; audiences can’t help but mimic their reactions.

His first two films, Dead Friend and Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait, both focus on the unsuspecting victims of vengeful spirits.  His latest film, Don’t Click is an extension of this theme; the spirit of a dead teenager possesses an Internet video that kills all who view it.  Like The Ring on YouTube.  The prospect of a haunted viral video may seem ridiculous to think about, but times have changed and horror directors like Kim are seeking new ways to terrorize their audiences.  Tales of vampires and werewolves no longer scare people like they used to, as films like Twilight have turned the aforementioned into something to love, not fear.

Kim is only too aware of these changes. “These spiritualized horror movies try to utilize daily items that we feel very close to, or take usual spaces that we feel very familiar with, and all of a sudden make them feel unfamiliar,” he explains. Spirits no longer haunt cemeteries or houses; instead, they have taken to cell phones, cameras, video games, and even the Internet.

No matter what is being haunted though the challenge is finding new and better ways to frighten audiences.  And this is a challenge that Kim gleefully tackles.  Standard horror movies often play out on a formula; they set a tone, introduce a villain, then follow a path of scares dispersed between intervals of downtime, a climax, then new beginning.  Kim has consciously discarded this formula for more of a continuous adrenaline rush.  Don’t Click shocks you with a constant sense of anxiety and panic throughout the entire film.  His goal was to have every second of the film something of an exhausting experience.  The characters are thrust from one scenario to the next without hesitation.  Where one terrifying experience ends, a new one begins.  In his capable hands, even something as mundane as a character sitting at her computer or using a smartphone leaves audience members quite uneasy.

Kim is a firm believer in that fact that raw reactions are what sell horror movies.  And Kim is definitely a firm believer in getting real reactions from his actors, doing whatever he can to scare the hell out of them to get the look he wants.  He smiles at this style of film making and shrugs.  It’s the reality he’s looking for.  For one scene in Don’t Click that takes place in a dark warehouse, he simply put his leading lady into a dark warehouse.  “She didn’t have any clue what was going to happen in there,” Kim smiles. He originally wanted a cameraman to follow the actress through the scene but decided against it, instead choosing to have the woman film the scene herself, not knowing what would fall from the ceiling or jump out at her.  “That wasn’t acting,” he says laughing of the end result, “She was crying when she walked out of there.  I’m a mean director.”

Fortunately, Kim is scaring audiences every bit as much as his actors, an ability that has made his films extremely successful in Korea; Dead Friend was the best performing horror film in the summer it debuted.  With Dimension Films acquiring the remake rights to Dead Friend, it is only a matter of time before Kim becomes a name in the US as well.




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