Film Review: The Priests

A young girl is possessed by a demon in this handsome take on 'The Exorcist' that benefits from the unusual setting: modern-day Seoul, South Korea.
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Catholic priest Kim Bum-Shin (Kim Yun-Seok) has a reputation as a renegade: He's an exorcist and, really, who in the first quarter of the 21st century believes that people exhibiting bizarre, profane and destructive behavior are better served by an archaic religious ritual than mental-health care?

And yet pretty high-school student Young-Sin (Park So-Dam) has been acting bizarrely–scary bizarre, not teenage acting-out bizarre–ever since she was clipped by a car carrying two priests who had just conducted a successful exorcism and were rushing to finally dispose of the evil entity for good; their car was totaled by a truck and the demon unleashed to find a new host. The Archdiocese of Seoul has already privately conceded that the girl is possessed and needs an exorcism, though if ever asked will deny, deny, deny rather than have the Church's dignity sullied by involvement with such horror-movie nonsense.

Kim and another cleric have already attempted an exorcism, but it failed so spectacularly–his assistant suffered a stroke so severe that he's now on his deathbed—that he's been unable to find another assistant until young Deacon Choi (Gang Dong-Won) is volunteered for the position. Choi, still a seminary student, is in disgrace for offenses ranging from cheating on tests and reading manga in class to drinking and generally breaking every rule put in front of him, so he seriously needs to earn some brownie points.

Once the lengthy exorcism gets underway, Western viewers will find themselves on fairly familiar ground: The possessed girl swears, writhes, projectile-vomits blood and deteriorates physically as the unclean spirit within her rages, while the priests grow increasingly exhausted, both physically and spiritually. Deacon Choi is especially vulnerable, both because of his youth and inexperience and because he's nursing two guilty secrets, one new and the other rooted in his childhood.

Like the Devil, the fun is in the details, many culturally specific: The female shaman, a dervish in red and white robes and rattling knives like castanets, who's brought in for extra spiritual oomph; the importance of dates (the exorcism begins on July 15, the feast of the hungry ghost; Deacon Choi was born in the year of the tiger, and so has a natural connection with the supernatural world); the Bell of St. Francis (he used it to pass safely through the demon forest); the piglet brought in to serve as a vessel for the evil spirit if/when it's forced to leave the girl's body.

The trouble with exorcism movies overall is that the formula is as specific as the ritual around which they're built, so the fact that first-time feature writer-director Jae-hyun Jang was able to make The Priests – which was expanded from his 2014 short 12th Assistant Deacon – so engaging constitutes no small feat.

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