REVIEW: The 8th Night (2021)
It’s The Exorcist, yet a Buddhist monk is in place of a Catholic priest. A Black Eye of anxiety and a Red Eye of anger are collectively the engineer of global-scale chaos this time, not Pazuzu. One film is adapted from a best-selling novel, the other is based on a sutra, both sacred in significance and the oldest in existence. Kim Tae-hyung’s mystery-horror directorial debut The 8th Night is not at all an experience that overwhelms or — surprisingly — sets itself ablaze due to over-ambition. What it is, then, is a film with the style, the startles and the sight to certify deeper currents, even when burdened by hyper-caffeinated pacing and average English subtitling.
As with many theatrical titles with 2020 rollout hopes, The 8th Night was buried by the pandemic and then rescued by a streaming service, in this case Netflix. In the prologue fully narrated in Sanskrit (voice of Anupam Tripathi) and featuring a mix of epigraphy and live-action, there is a being (beast or deity?) capable of literally making Earth hell that is powered by the aforementioned two Eyes. They seem to be sentient beings themselves, with the Red Eye being way shiftier than the Black Eye. As emphasised, and tasked by the Buddha to his disciples and over eons theirs, the Eyes must always be kept apart, never outside of their own sarira caskets. However, this being one of those apocalyptic narratives, there is a prophecy that fate will reunite the two Eyes on the eighth night — once the blood moon has risen the seven nights before and once the Red Eye has possessed seven people (referred to as “stepping stones”). The blood moon part is a neat stroke of art mirroring reality; the film takes place in 2019 when we had the phenomenon.
Still tuned in? Feel free to scroll up and reread to really nail the beginnings that double as The 8th Night’s foundation. There are at least four other events, all eventually linked to each other, to follow. Or to catch up, if you aren’t proficient in Korean or reading subtitles. Director Kim, who works from his own script, and editor Kim Sun-min prize momentum, blessing the film’s 115 minutes with whirlwind-powered roller-coaster speed that keeps the supernatural fearsome and also cursing them with next-to-no possibility to wholly grab onto you. The latter is most unfortunate as it is avoidable with only one manoeuver: to opt for a progression much more measured and much less like The Chaser (which editor Kim also worked on). There is no shortage of to-be-unearthed truths, to-be-realised links and to-be-registered lore in the chase to stop the Red Eye from finding its seven stepping stones by two monks — weathered Jin-su (Lee Sung-min) and innocent Jeong-hun (Nam Da-reum) — the trailing of the chase by two bro-by-bond homicide detectives — over-passionate Ho-tae (Park Hae-joon) and scarred Dong-jin (Kim Dong-young) — and the involvement of a taciturn and ethereal girl — Ae-ran (Kim Joo-yung). You’re always on a countdown to line up who’s who and what’s what; at best just the bits and the pieces are collected, at worst pausing or rewinding to properly recollect becomes paramount. “Already?!” one might shriek as the overlaying text denotes the story is now in its fifth night.
Then there are the subtitles that do the reverse of getting you to match the film’s speed. Whoever is in charge needn’t be at the level of Darcy Paquet, best known as Bong Joon-ho’s go-to translator/subtitler, but they could have had his care for context and comprehension. Little details can get lost in the mix and on key occasions thin the drama; without the knowledge of Dharma names beforehand — or an explanation during the film — one may question why our lead is both “Jin-su” and “Seonhwa” or “Jeong-hun” and “Cheong-seok.” Speaking of names, revealing them instead of simply using the umbrella, catch-all “he” and “she” would have been more ideal. At one point, a line of dialogue, while meant to elaborate, is added when no character is speaking.
Fortunately for The 8th Night, the things that work have more screen time. The backdrop is never not engrossing. Choo Kyeong-yeob’s photography brews menace with little effort (watch out for the Red Eye-possessed high-school student sequence that harkens the golden days of Asian horror or Insidious’ smiling family). Shim Hyun-jung’s score can use more variation but is never unwelcoming. Most importantly, the story, which despite horror flourishes and the expected semi-prolonged dramas, is commendable for always having an eye on the Diamond Sutra — or Buddhism concepts, since the text’s meaning itself is still open. The one the film hews closest to is the impermanence in all, including presumably established concepts like pasts and present, things both unwritten and written, sins and virtues, and gains and losses. In other words, establishment is one of the illusions you could, and should, cut through. Perhaps, then, it is worthwhile to forgive the things that don’t work or are lesser in Kim’s film? As they never stick around long enough, it makes pushing to the end a compelling notion. Be even more lenient and this gets an opening to be a film you should, at least once, give the time of day to.
The 8th Night is available on Netflix now.