About half an hour into Jacky Kang's The Gingko Bed, the (mortal) hero and heroine have a terrible argument. Each of them has just experienced a violent shift of reality, and each too stunned to notice that the other is equally shaken. At the climax of the fight, they both shout that they don't understand what's going on. And at that point, if I could have reached into the picture and given the both of them a nice, big, reassuring hug, I would have; because I knew exactly how they felt.
You see, The Gingko Bed is a mess. There are few other competently-made movies I've ever seen that could match this one for moments of jaw-dropping incomprehension. I found myself thinking often of Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead, a movie that has similarly astonishing lapses in logic and continuity.
The problems start at the very beginning. I'm going to give away a lot of this movie's story in this review, but I'm not doing anything the movie itself doesn't do. You see, the whole movie is framed by a narration: it begins and ends with a girl's voice describing her late father, and his mysterious habit of sketching the portrait of an unidentified woman. The introduction fades from a static shot of a photograph of the happy family, to the opening credits. The narrator herself does not appear in the film, but she's already given us more information than we'd care to have so early in the film. We can guess, as the film proper begins, that the hero and heroine are the parents of the off-screen narrator... so we know that whatever happens, they will survive and marry. So much for true suspense.
But then, as if one introduction wasn't enough, we have another one... we have a slickly animated, idealized landscape on which two enormous gingko trees grow. Suddenly, an animated hawk flies up to the trees: a storm approaches, and as the hawk looks on, a bolt of lightning destroys one of the trees. The story of the gingko trees, the re-incarnated forms of two legendary lovers, will be told to us later in the film. It's a poignant legend, but having it animated for us really robs it of its mythic power. It just looks like a cartoon, for crying out loud.
We're introduced to the hero and heroine. He's an art teacher named Su-hyon, and she's a slightly scatterbrained doctor... I don't remember her ever being addressed by her given name, which is apparently Sun-Young, but she is referred to as Dr. Ryu by her colleagues. Su-hyon has some unspecified health problem, or imagined health problem, which his girlfriend is investigating... the real nature of this sub-plot is never resolved, though it may have something to do with his smoking. Perhaps it's hinting at his early death, as mentioned in the prologue.
Su-hyon has a series of prophetic dreams, one in which he finds the gingko bed, and one in which he finds an old woodworker who knows all the old legends. The trouble is, in each dream, the hero sees himself get horribly maimed. What on earth would possess him to go looking for the source of these dreams? If I were he, and I began to see the dream coming true, I'd get the hell out of there.
Following the clues provided by his dreams, Su-hyon discovers the elaborately carved gingko bed of the title. Within the bed is the spirit of Mi-dan, his lover from a previous life. Unfortunately, as Su-hyon gets closer to the secret of his past existence, another spirit gets closer to him: the wrathful specter of General Hwang, the man who separated the lovers centuries ago because of his own thwarted desire for the girl.
According to this film, spirits can't interact with the mundane world unless they displace someone's spirit -- killing the host, at least temporarily. Hwang, the warrior, has no qualms killing his victims to get his body back; although to be fair to him, he is not presented as an evil, indiscriminate killing machine. In an early scene, which introduces us to the idea that the ghosts need flesh to become whole again, Hwang kills a young thug as he is preparing to rape a girl. Hwang is still a reasonably sympathetic character for a villain, but his desire for something he may never have (and, in fact, his desire for anything at all in this world) have bound him to an afterlife of misery and wandering. Mi-dan, too, is both blessed and cursed by her desire, granted eternal existence by the god of love, but forever unable to be reunited with the one she loves. Mi-dan is forced to steal the body of an injured young man, in order to save the hero from General Hwang. Unfortunately, this body-robbery puts her in serious trouble with the god of love. Also unfortunately, and by an amazing coincidence, the young man happened to be a patient of Sun-Young's, whom she had just diagnosed as being out of danger.
There is no consistency in the body-snatching aspect of the story, either. Some times the ghosts appear in the form of the bodies they've stolen. Other times, the body remains behind, dead to all appearances, while the ghost incarnates in his or her normal form. Even in mortal bodies, the ghosts still have bizarre supernatural powers, like the ability to relocate or fly through the air.
The device of having Mi-dan steal the body of one of Sun-Young's patients -- from a hospital miles away -- is a transparent gimmick, but it does set up the film's best moment. In a bit which reminded me again of City of the Living Dead, the young man whose body had been stolen by Mi-dan comes back to life -- in his coffin. Just as in the Fulci film, the moment is both terrifying and baffling. A lot happens before a body is prepared for burial, and while Korean Christian traditions may be different, I doubt if the man's body would be very useful to him at this point. Another point which reminded me of the nightmarish illogic of City... or The Beyond is the skewed time-line: Mi-dan's rescue of the young artist took only a few minutes, yet in the space of that time, the young man's funeral is already in progress!
Still, it's a chilling moment when the camera tracks back behind the elaborate memorial tribute, to the cloth-draped coffin in the shadows... and the coffin begins to shake gently. We then cut to a conversation between Sun-Young and a member of the family. I won't spoil the surprise of what their conversation involves, but in a blackly humorous way it trumps the horror of the previous image.
So: now we have a hero whose life is in danger from a vengeful ghost; a heroine who must face the indignity of having a dead patient come back to life; and two separate love triangles involving both living and dead, visible and invisible partners. What we don't have is a sense of purpose to the story as a whole.
We get a few insights into the characters of the living couple, mostly involving Sun-Young -- she's had to struggle to establish herself as a professional working woman in Korea, especially considering her tendency to be disorganized in her private life. Now, everything she counted on, from her career, to her boyfriend, to her understanding of reality, has failed her. Really, it's the glimpses into Sun-Young's life, even down to the furnishings of her apartment, that give the film its strongest and most human touches.
But this is not really Sun-Young's story, and for the most part, the film gives us stereotypes. We're expected to sympathize with the time-crossed lovers because they are time-crossed lovers, not because there's any discernible chemistry between them, or plausible story behind their reunion. They just come together -- at which point the hero does what's expected of a movie character in his position. In place of further development, Kang introduces an elderly woodworker who narrates the entire back-story for us. It's almost as though he's reading a telegram from the land of the dead, though not nearly as exciting.
On consideration, it's rather shocking how quickly Su-hyon becomes infatuated with a ghost he's seen only once. Though his obsession with Mi-dan sets up the most convincingly moving gesture in the whole film -- namely, Sun-Young's acceptance of death so that Su-hyon may see Mi-dan one more time -- our hero himself comes off looking pretty shallow. This is especially true when he jeopardizes Sun-Young's chances of being revived by refusing to let go of Mi-dan's spirit until the last minute.
As the film draws to its predictable conclusion, it becomes more and more overtly manipulative, relying on our acquaintance with similar films like Somewhere in Time or A Chinese Ghost Story for its emotional impact. Although the characters' decisions along the way will probably have you scratching your head, the climax of the film defies all explanation. You'll end up wondering how, after all she's been through, Sun-Young manages to wind up in the right place at the right time to do what she does. After all, she's just come back from the dead in a hospital room, after which General Hwang showed up in the body of an intern and sliced up the hospital's Chief of Staff with a scalpel... and yet, here she is, moments later, in her boyfriend's apartment, fully dressed, fully conscious and alone. It simply isn't reasonable, except as a plot convenience.
This is not to say that The Gingko Bed is a bad film. It's professionally made, moderately entertaining to watch, and makes at least a few attempts at engaging the audience. Like many of the best Asian horror films, it is driven less by the fear of death or bodily violence -- though there is plenty of both in the film -- than it is by Buddhist spiritual precepts. It uses the ghost story as a parable of the consequences of desire. Only by letting go of desire can the spirit achieve peace; however, all the central characters of The Gingko Bed are tormented by their inability to have what they most crave. It is only through sacrifice that they come to achieve any peace at all: Su-hyon must bid farewell to the ghost of his long-lost lover; Sun-Young must accept an encounter with death, and the possible loss of either her life or her love; Mi-dan must accept annihilation, and General Hwang must give up his centuries-long pursuit and let Mi-dan's spirit rest.
The whole movie would be much more powerful if we were given a chance to identify with its protagonists. City of the Living Dead, that equally infuriating and disconcerting movie, didn't even attempt to make any emotional connections to its characters. It was intended as an "absolute" movie, where the narrative was only a temporary framework and the shocking images carried all the weight of the film. By contrast, The Gingko Bed behaves as though it's a character and story-driven movie, while falling far short of its stated intentions.
The Gingko Bed drew a good deal of attention, both at home in Korea on its initial release and in foreign film festivals thereafter. Kang (a Korean film director who must not be confused with the American Jackie [Blood Diner] Kong) went on to direct the combination romance / action film Shiri in 1999, a film which broke all Korean box office records; Shiri even out-performed Titanic in Korea.
The overwhelming success of Shiri will probably attract even more attention to Kang's earlier film -- provided anybody can find it. It has not yet been released on DVD; it was put out on VHS in the US a few years back, by a video label which has since gone out of business. It is now only available for home viewing in a dubbed Chinese version on a Hong Kong VCD.