Park Kang’s Seire is a chillingly atmospheric thriller that plays on expectation, superstition and explores a fractured psyche.
The Korean folk tradition of samchil-il (삼칠일) is the 21 days immediately following the birth of a child, wherein the family home is guarded by protective ropes, visits and certain food items are restricted, and anything seen as a bad omen or ‘taboo’ is to be vehemently avoided. It’s during this process that Park Kang’s Seire (세이레) takes place, and the writer/director counteracts this period of joy with slow, eerie tension and creates something as intriguing as it is unsettling.
Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) and his wife Hae-mi (Sim Eun-woo) have just had a baby when he gets a message that his ex-girlfriend Se-young (Ryu Abel) has died. As they’ve been observing samchil-il, Hae-mi is not particularly keen on him attending the funeral as she’s quite superstitious and worried about the omens it will bring upon them. But Woo-jin defies her, and it leads to a series of strange, eerie events that could be a curse placed upon baby I-su, or simply Woo-jin working through his feelings around losing Se-young and having recently become a father.
Seire is a psychological thriller that’s really good at building tension. It’s unsettling and shocking at times, but isn’t seeking to outright frighten its audience. The aim here is to unnerve, and Park is really good at maintaining that slow, creeping sense of unease with eerie imagery and playing with reality. The film feels deliberately and effectively fractured, much like Woo-jin’s psyche, and its more of an exploration of his guilt, grief and fear than it is a horror film. There’s a meticulousness to the film’s use of subtlety, and while it doesn’t want to give easy answers to its questions, it doesn’t ever make it feel frustrating. Instead Seire is intriguing; from the rotten cores of Woo-jin’s apples to the twitching of I-su’s eye, every moment is curated to deepen that sense of confusion, ambiguity and anxiety.
The film is bookended with the end of an old life and the beginning of a new one, and is really interesting both visually and thematically. The juxtaposition of Woo-jin and Hae-min frantically trying to tame I-su’s fever whilst Se-young’s body is being prepared for burial really emphasises the director’s intent to keep the film ambiguous and to carefully straddle the line between psychological and supernatural. Park uses elements of each to craft what is essentially a ghost story, only it’s the ghosts that we create ourselves in periods of heightened emotion; the ones that stem from superstition and secrets. But while Seire plays with the supernatural in its visuals and composition, it doesn’t ever resort to cheap scares. Instead, it relies on establishing and maintaining its cloying, tense atmosphere and keeping its narrative character-focused, utilising the expectations we, as the audience, place on every aspect to subvert the tropes one might expect from the set-up.
For a debut feature film, Seire is stunning. It’s atmospheric, compelling and really good at sustaining tension. It seeks to make its audience uneasy, and is content to play with reality and expectation to deliver a story that doesn’t offer a resolute conclusion and yet still feels really satisfying.