"You still think I did it? Don’t you get it? She’s playing us all.
You’ve no idea what she’s like... My wife is still alive..."


When conglomerate owner Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-ae) dies unexpectedly her body is taken to the morgue of the National Forensics Service. Shortly after, as a security guard of the NFS building investigates intermittent electricity and lightning problems during a night shift he discovers that Seol-hee's body is missing, almost immediately being struck and knocked unconscious by an unknown, hooded attacker. Arriving to interview the guard, police officers led by detective Jung-sik (Kim Sang-kyung) also inform Seol-hee’s husband, Jin-han (Kim Kang-woo), by phone of the corpse's disappearance and he (seemingly somewhat grudgingly) drives to the scene straight away to find out what on earth is going on.
However, subsequent conversations between Jin-han and detective Jung-sik soon turn into an ongoing interrogation with Jung-sik increasingly convinced that Jin-han is responsible for Seol-hee's death, related to him having an extra-marital affair.
However, not only does Jin-han continue to protest his innocence but he also vehemently claims Seol-hee is still alive and escaped from the morgue herself to exact her revenge for his betrayal...


Based on Oriol Paulo's 2012 Spanish film El Cuerpo (The Body), The Vanished begins in accomplished style with a deeply atmospheric pre-title sequence:
The camera draws slowly back from a full frame focus on (closed) door ten of a wall of morgue drawers (if you will) – the drawer that at this point at least contains Seol-hee’s body. Continuing to backtrack down a long corridor towards what we soon learn is the security guard’s station, prolonged utter silence is gradually replaced by the sound of Easy Listening singing incrementally increasing in volume as we approach to find him watching a TV music programme while repeatedly being disturbed by a blinking fluorescent light on the wall behind the workstation, above his head. When further lights begin flickering and fizzing, the guard heads off to ascertain the cause, soon arriving at morgue drawer ten which is now open and empty.
The eerie green emergency lit corridors intermittently awash with full fluorescent bulb illumination accompanied by the aforementioned singing – now echoing and feeling almost disembodied in the distance – instantly give a wholly eerie quality to proceedings even before we fully realise that the open morgue drawer means a body has moved or been moved, drawing viewers in from the very outset. Not only that, but the guard seeing Seol-hee’s body propped up against a wall before she creepily, shockingly opens her eyes; stares at him; and then disappears (he later claims it was her ghost that he saw) instantly brings into question the film’s ultimate genre – which we are already wholly immersed in – and that’s hugely important later on, repeatedly and perfectly pushing viewers to debate whether something paranormal is going on; if Seol-hee has left the morgue herself, still alive; or indeed if her body has been taken by a third party, making subsequent narrative unpredictability all the easier, in the process.

These types of eerily seemingly/possibly supernatural elements in opening scenes have always been part and parcel of horrors and thrillers throughout the world, not least in Korea (from New Korean Cinema wave examples such as Into the Mirror, Dead Friend and the like through to more recent examples like The Mimic and The Wailing etc etc etc). The reason being, they work in grabbing viewers attention instantly before they even know what’s transpiring, planting horror in their heads from the get go and assuming a director knows what he/she is doing can stay with viewers subconsciously throughout. The use of such a scene here serves exactly the same purpose regardless of whether that is the true genre we’re watching or not. Director Lee Chang-hee (and indeed Oriol Paulo in his original) are wholly and fully aware of that fact and use it to great effect as further strangely unsettling events take place and indeed grow.

Immediately following this opening scene, we are introduced to Jin-han and detective Jung-sik in turn. Jin-han in his bathroom putting drops in his eyes to simulate tears at a family gathering to mourn Seol-hee’s death speaks volumes of his true feelings for, and relationship with, his wife, and a discussion between police officers about Jung-sik prior to his arrival at the NFS building point to him having a ‘past’ resulting in him being a heavy drinker and likely causing him to move from elsewhere to work in this locale. Both men’s pasts are revealed to a greater extent through flashback sequences that are vital to both the overall narrative tale and indeed the relationship between them as the interrogation builds while the true state of play ever so gradually starts to come to the fore – the flashbacks being entirely warranted, wholly necessary and deftly realised as such.

As the investigation into the disappearance of Seol-hee’s body gets underway, The Varnished (deliberately) appears as a procedural thriller but as the story unfolds equally in focus is the psychological battle between Jung-sik and Jin-han. Great performances from both Kim Sang-kyung combine with a well written script to ensure their biting interactions are wholly engaging, more often than not gripping. With the question of whether or not Jin-han really did try to murder his wife answered fairly early on (from viewers’ perspective, if not Jung-sik’s), the narrative’s ‘whodunnit’ element is of course centred on the missing corpse (that is, if Seol-hee really is dead... or not) but inherent and as important to this is the ‘Why?’ of the matter. Numerous story elements (a clock/calendar on a wall in the present day reading ’20 July 2007’; calls to both Jin-han and his lover from Seol-hee’s phone number; evidence relating to Seol-hee’s apparent death left in the morgue drawer for Jin-han to find; etc etc) give clues to the real state of play throughout the build to the film’s culmination, but depending on whether viewers believe Jin-han took the body; think Seol-hee is still alive; assume a third party is involved; or indeed feel that something ghostly is going on, many of these moments could equally be seen as narrative red herrings of a sort. In fact, these could mostly be seen as either with which you see them as wholly dependent on your perspective of what you've already witnessed.
Regardless of which of the above you believe is the true state of play, The Vanished plays its many cards so well that I virtually guarantee you will at least consider changing your mind on more than one occasion. That being the case, when the final reveal takes place it feels wholly satisfying, regardless of whether you’ve fully figured out what’s really going on or not.

And speaking of the reveal: Over the years from the NKC wave through to recent times, a number of Korean films have had similar character arcs (I realise I’m being rather vague here but to name any specific examples would risk giving the game away, marring your enjoyment in the process) but while a number of those could be said to be rather forced, contrived or overly predictable, The Vanished never felt as such to me and, as far as I’m concerned, in spite of the reveal requiring exposition in both dialogue and flashback (normally a major bug bear of mine) I was able to accept its use with little criticism at all. One thing is for sure, The Vanished is so confident, assured and well crafted that you’d never assume this is a director’s debut feature, unless you were aware of that fact in advance.

As a final note: The Vanished’ cinematography is exemplary throughout but what stands out most in terms of visuals are a number of absolutely gorgeous passing moments that point to director Lee Chang-hee’s directorial flair. From the glasses of a doctor steaming up while taking a sip from a hot cup of coffee before giving her theory on the body’s disappearance; to Jung-sik holding up his phone to look at the picture of his girlfriend on its lock screen, becoming a moving image as she lifts her head and smiles while the area around and behind the device morphs to become the surroundings from which the picture was taken - transporting us back to a different time and place in flashback in the process - these moments add a strength to the visuals to equal that of the narrative itself.



Based on the 2012 Spanish film El Cuerpo, The Vanished is exemplary, gripping and unpredictable throughout to the extent that you would never for a second think this is Lee Chang-hee’s debut feature unless you were aware of that fact in advance.

THE VANISHED (사라진밤) / 2018
Director: Lee Chang-hee
Starring: Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Kang-woo, Kim Hee-ae, Han Ji-an


All images © Sidus Pictures
Review © Paul Quinn