In the summer of 2009, a Korean blogger claimed to have seen a strange creature near Jangsan, a mountain in Busan. The following year, the creature was spotted again. As of March 2013, there had been 14 recorded sightings, six of which put the creature at Jangsan. Described as having a sloth-like shape and long white hair, the creature was noted by some to share similarities with the bukcheong sajanoreum lion, whose origins stem from the folk belief that lions have the power to withstand and turn away evil spirits. However, this creature seemed far from benevolent. The original blog post has since been deleted, but the urban legend of the Jangsan Tiger so captured the imagination that South Korean director Huh Jung was inspired to make The Mimic.

poster for Arrow Films’ release of The Mimic  

Hee-yeon (Yum Jung-ah) and Min-ho (Park Hyuk-kwon) move with their young daughter Jun-hee (Bang Yu-seol) to a house at the foot of Mt Jangsan. Min-ho’s elderly mother Soon-ja (Heo Jin) is unwell, and he hopes that a new life in the countryside will help improve her condition. Hee-yeon, meanwhile, is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their son, who went missing five years ago. After two children are traumatised by something in the woods, Hee-yeon finds a little girl (Shin Rin-ah) apparently abandoned. Ignoring her husband’s wish to inform the police, Hee-yeon invites the girl into their home, and something else comes with her.

At its core, The Mimic is a story of unresolved trauma. Besides a line from Min-ho asking if she has been taking her pills, there is little to suggest that Hee-yeon has received any support in the wake of this tragic event. Five years have passed, yet the sight of a young boy dressed similarly to her missing son is enough to send her spiralling. It is no wonder then that, despite having another child, the draw of a little girl abandoned in the woods is too strong to resist. It’s no wonder, too, that as the police could not bring her son home, she refuses to trust them with another missing child. Yum Jung-ah’s performance anchors the film, her grief delicate and nuanced at one moment, awful and wrenching the next. Park Hyuk-kwon, meanwhile, gives an understated performance as Min-ho, fulfilling the societal expectation that a husband must remain strong to support his family through tragedy. When his own grief finally overflows, it results in one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

A Child Wonders the Woods

Shin Rin-ah in The Mimic

Huh Jung’s screenplay attempts to cover a lot of ground in 100 minutes. Not only do we have a grieving couple, a mysterious child, and something haunting the woods, we also have detectives investigating a crime. This latter narrative thread would have benefitted from more time, but the film does not suffer for it. In fact, it gives us the opportunity to not only see someone other than our protagonists encounter the Tiger, but also to uncover a little more of the mystery surrounding Shin Rin-ah’s character. In addition, it offers an interesting perspective on the police-procedural narrative so common in horror films. Hee-yeon distrusts the detectives from the start, and once the true horror of the situation comes to light, there is little they can do anyway. This aspect of the film builds on the sense of helpless foreboding.

The film admittedly deals in clichés that may frustrate some viewers. We have the wife’s emotional distress juxtaposed with the husband’s reticence, the elderly relative in poor health who sees and hears things others dismiss, and an enigmatic stranger who appears seemingly from nowhere to offer cryptic pronouncements. This trope-filled cake is iced with poor decision-making, especially on behalf of Hee-yeon. However, her grief is so well realised, and the tragedy so affecting, that choices made in the heat of the moment informed by her unresolved trauma read as understandable: frustrating but ultimately human. Had she been supported through the loss, she would not be such a prime target for the Tiger. 

Yum Jung-ah and Shin Rin-ah in The Mimic

But what does any of this have to do with the Jangsan Tiger? The creature never makes an appearance, and Huh’s screenplay takes liberties with the urban legend, reimagining the Tiger as a folkloric spirit. Its acolyte, a shaman, struck a deal with the spirit in return for one of its skills: the uncanny ability to mimic any sound. The two children Hee-yeon meets towards the beginning of the film were in part traumatised by the Tiger’s appropriation of their missing dog’s bark. In the film’s opening sequence, a man in the process of committing murder is confronted by his victim’s stolen voice. These scenes of mimicry are highlights, and Shin Rin-ah’s ability to copy expressions and mannerisms is astonishing. Indeed, her screen presence elevates a role that could have been just another creepy child in a horror film to something enigmatic, hovering between villain and victim.

The film is further elevated by Kim Il-yeon’s cinematography. Kim previously worked with Huh Jung on Hide and Seek (2013), and their teamwork benefits The Mimic massively. From beautiful, sunlit exteriors which belie the supernatural horrors at hand, to the darkest depths of the cave explored at the film’s climax, the visuals mirror beautifully Hee-yeon’s character arc; trauma on a sunny day is still trauma, and with no way to process it healthily, eventually she must confront it. We are drawn inexorably towards this confrontation, and at the film’s emotional crescendo – as Hee-yeon and Min-ho grope blindly hand in hand up a seemingly endless staircase – we still cannot be sure if she will overcome it.

The Mimic – trailer

The Mimic is an imperfect but deeply affecting film. Sequences of intense supernatural horror and emotional distress more than make up for a few familiar tropes. Indeed, one such sequence is easily among the most disturbing in recent memory. Striking visuals and powerful performances combine to create an unflinching look at a woman in distress, and the way untreated trauma consumes. Not only is it a great horror film, it is also a beautifully written tragedy, upsetting and frustrating in equal measure.

In the UK, Arrow Films’ 2018 release of The Mimic is available on DVD via HMV’s website.

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