Absolutely ridiculous yet also pretty darn creepy, "The Hole" finds inspiration in the kind of domestic thriller that would find an otherwise perfectly respectable major actress running around screeching and trying to kill someone with a golf club.
Not to be confused with the 2001 American indie thriller, the 1998 Taiwanese oddball drama/musical, or any number of other films to use the same title, "The Hole" is a 1997 Korean release that falls into the "crazy in-law" category of horror/thrillers. (The title is misleading, as there is no hole, really; the literal translation of the title "Olgami" is "The Trap," which is also weak, but what can you do?)
The crazy in-law here is a mother (Yun So-jeong) who's just a bit too close to her thirtysomething son Dong-woo (Park Yong-woo) for comfort. They cuddle, they play, they show great affection for each other. So much so, in fact, that it's not until a few minutes in that we realize that this is not a married couple, but a parent and child. Yikes.
We can tell right away that the news of Dong-Woo's surprise engagement to the lovely Su-jin (Choi Ji-woo) is not going to sit well with Mother. Following the wedding, the three all wind up living together, a nervous Su-jin trying her best to please her new in-law. Mother, meanwhile, is out to sabotage the whole thing, forcing Su-jin to oversleep, ruin dinners, and other sorts of mild embarrassment. To make matters worse, Dong-woo's enough of a mama's boy that he sees no problem in interrupting a session of love making so he can tend to his insomniac mother.
Writer Yeo Hye-yeong and director Kim Sung-Hong keep everything on a slow boil for the first half of the picture - the story's eeriness sneaks up on you, little by little. We're given unsettling ideas in tiny handfuls (for example, Su-jin's discovery of Dong-woo's disturbing bathing habits), which only emphasizes the major change of pace around the halfway point, where things get very violent very quickly. Yun makes for a perfect sinister figure, elegant in her villainy, while Choi projects just the right amount of innocence to make us root for her survival. This is a story that goes over the top so often that a miscalculation in performance would ruin the terror and get the audience giggling. The whole thing borders on camp, but the cast delivers such earnestness that we're never laughing.
Keeping the film fairly limited in scope (aside from the three major players, only one other actor has a speaking part) both hurts the film and helps it. The limitations placed upon the story prevent any broadening of ideas, leaving us only with a clichéd chunk of domestic thriller that plays out by the numbers. There's not much originality to the plot; by the time Su-jin's friend shows up to investigate, we know exactly how everything will play out, right down to the not-really-dead "shocker."
That said, the limitations also force the movie to focus entirely on this small group of people, which adds a feeling of no possible escape for Su-jin. "The Hole" becomes very claustrophobic, with a tension that never lets up for the last forty-some minutes. It's grandiose and outrageous, yes, but it's also highly effective in building the right kind of scares.
The disc reviewed here is a Region 3 release from Spectrum DVD; it will only play on region-compatible sets. As of this writing, no Region 1 release is available.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation is a bit muted at times, but that only plays into the film's somber tone. Otherwise, this is a crisp, commendable transfer.
The Dolby 5.1 surround mix is just enough to build a solid atmosphere, although it's nothing too memorable. A 2.0 stereo mix is also included, although this track is not labeled on the DVD cover. Removable English subtitles are provided.
A very brief making-of delivers the usual amount of on-set video diary stuff. It's kinda fun to watch the actresses film the scene in which Mother attempts to drown Su-jin - they try to laugh off the brutal violence of the scene.
Video footage of a press conference announcing the start of production might be interesting, except no subtitles are offered, so I have no idea what they're saying. (The making-of also omits subtitles, but at least there non-Korean speakers can follow what's going on there fairly easily.)
Cast and crew biographies and filmographies are offered only in Korean (although, oddly enough, the links to them are in English). Hope you have a big enough screen, as the text on these pages is quite small.
The final extra is the pleasant surprise: ten complete audio selections from the film's soundtrack. The musical score, from Kim Dong-seong, is by far the best thing about "The Hole," creepy and moody in all the right places. Having the music available separately is the next best thing to owning the CD.
"The Hole" is as silly as can be, but it's so downplayed that it actually becomes quite terrifying at times. It's certainly more effective than many overblown Hollywood productions of the same genre. Recommended to anyone looking for a solid chill or two.