Fantasia 2011: ‘Hello Ghost’ is surprisingly upbeat given its morbid subject matter
Written and Directed by Young-Tak Kim
South Korea has a difficulty with suicides. On one hand they have one of, if not the highest rates of suicides in the developed world. At around 30 suicides per 100,000 people per year, only Lithuania is as bad. (By comparison, Canada and the U.S.A are around 11 suicides per 100,000 people per year.)
At the same time, because there are many Roman Catholics in South Korea, the belief that suicide is a sin – in fact, the ultimate sin – is widespread. Which may help explain why suicide is not discussed. If (for example) a student snaps during a hellish exam week and kills himself, many schools forbid discussing the death.
All of these attitudes to suicide, its (for want of a better word) popularity, societal disapproval of the practice and a need for secrecy were previously on display in Jee-woon Kim’s pitch-black comedy The Quiet Family, one of the first South Korean films to wow Fantasia audiences.
In that film, the always amazing Kang-ho Song leads a family that buys a tourist inn only to discover to their horror that it is a popular destination for “death tourists” to come and kill themselves. The rising body count gives us popularity, the family’s disgust at the suicides gives us society’s condemnation and the family’s increasingly desperate attempts to hide the bodies and cover-up the suicides give us the need for secrecy.
Now, Hello Ghost gives us another, slightly more cheery view of suicide in Korea, this time from the point of view of someone attempting to kill themselves. “Attempting” because our hero Sang-man (Tae-hyun Cha), a friendless orphan, is such a loser that he can’t even kill himself properly. After his most recent attempt lands him in the hospital, Sang-man discovers that he can now see ghosts: an old lecher, a chubby chain-smoking taxi driver, a weeping woman and a rambunctious small child. They are this film’s Quiet Family and they are just as disapproving of suicide as the family in the original movie.
After consulting a Confucian priest, Sang-man discovers that the ghosts can take over his body to fulfill their own desires. Worse from Sang-man’s point of view, the ghosts actively prevent him from further attempts of suicide. The only way that he will be able to die in peace is if he fulfills each ghost’s last wish.
Astonishingly, Hello Ghost turns into a romantic comedy as the ghost’s errands result in Sang-man continuously running into an efficient and pretty hospital nurse named Jung Yun-Soo (Kang Hye-Won). She works in a ward for terminally ill patients, so they are a perfect match for each other even if it takes a while for the two of them to notice. All Jung-Soo’s patients (including her Father) die despite her best efforts, despite who she is, but if they fall in love, Sang-man would give up suicide and live because of who she is. And Jung-Soo desperately needs someone in her life who will live because of her rather than die despite her.
While we are rooting for the two to fall in love, Hello Ghost pulls a magic trick on us, hiding Chekovian guns in plain sight. When they start firing, the film pulls off astonishing tonal shifts, shifting from silly slapstick, to tender romance, to tear-jerking melodrama in the blink of an eye.
A surprisingly upbeat film given its rather morbid subject matter, Hello Ghost, like parsley, is good for the heart.