The Cursed (Korean, 2020)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Kim Yong-wan

covers season 1

The Cursed is a good edit away from being a more solid supernatural thriller. Quality casting, good locations, great music, and an interesting – if ultimately kinda vague – premise make it compelling within any given episode, but the stretch to make its plot work across 12 hours prevents urgency between those episodes; it’s too easy to drop the show at any given point. US TV, over the past few years, has gotten better with trimming seasons down to 8 or 10 episodes, but we still get some 13-episode attempts to show-off sideplot bloat; from the small range of Korean TV I’ve sampled, while this version of filler doesn’t occur, the habit there – and used in The Cursed – is to allow some exchanges to go on for way longer than necessary, with select dialogue or an interaction given literally 15 minutes of screentime, when 2-5 would probably do. Doubling down on this is an excessive used of flashbacks, letting whole scenes play out again, and sometimes within the same episode. This creates a pacing problem for what should be a more tense tale, and really undermines some scenes that could’ve otherwise been pretty gripping.

In The Cursed, reporter Im Jin-hee (Uhm Ji-won) finds her attempts at exposing corruption within tech company Forest, run by oddball magnate Jin Jong-hyun (Sung Dong-il) constantly stymied by whistleblowers being outed for their own dirty dealings or, I dunno, up and dying. Jin-hee’s husband, Jung Sung-joon (Jung Moon-sung) is on her side in this hunt, but due to an injury sustained in the field, has lost face in the department, and is being shushed off the pursuit. Undaunted, Im Jin-hee pushes forward, stumbling across teen Baek So-jin (Jung Ji-so), who tells her that Jin Jong-hyun is more than just an evil person – he’s actually possessed by an evil spirit. On a lark, Jin-hee has Baek So-jin – who claims to be a shaman – put a curse on someone who’s been fouling up Jin-hee’s Forest research. …And then that someone winds up brutally murdered.

Several things spiral out from here: Jin-hee dodging suspicion for her involvement in that death; discovering, along with Baek, that Forest’s upcoming IPO is likely a harbinger for some horrible event; Jong-hyun’s own shaman, Jin Kyung (Jo Min-su) coming after the two; Sung-joon’s more fact-driven research into matters… The Cursed does a good job of pretending to handle most of these, while actually casually letting them drift away without much resolution, smartly keeping a focus on the more unpredictable supernatural elements – Baek versus Kyung; Jin Jong-hyun’s spirit – while slowly chipping away at the mysteries of how all of this came to be, and what Forest’s IPO is about.

The bond between Baek and Jin-hee is well handled, both in story and by the actresses – it’s believably paced, and rather touching when they come around to an actually friendship. Sung Dong-il is really awesomely frightening, and his cronies – Jo Min-su, and an assistant played by Kim Min-jae, are lots of fun to watch, with the former all scene-chewing greatness, and the latter so entertainingly slimy. Jin-hee’s up and down relationship with her husband is also interesting, and we get some very good comedy relief from a PI, played by Kim In-kwon. But there’s an equal amount left on the table, not really giving Jin-hee a clear moral arc throughout the show – not really dealing with her back and forth on “using” curses against people – and they stretch the mystique of Ji-so’s character for way too long, such that she begins to seem more ill-defined as opposed to mysterious. The same is true for the central premise: by the time pieces of it are revealed, it’s been too long for it to have requisite impact, and it’s too late in the series to really explain why what’s happening has to happen that way.

Still, within any given episode, I was hooked. The Cursed has great atmosphere, and although it dawdles with the aforementioned flashbacks and whatnot, it definitely creates a mood of dread, and mystique, that makes you want to hang in there. While that doesn’t carry over once the episode ends – I literally waited like a month to watch the final episode – it only takes hearing the haunting theme song and seeing a few minutes to get back in the mood again. With a potential followup series in the works, paring off some of the excess and also sharpening what’s there could make this into a pretty grand spook show.