The trouble with reviewing Shin Sang-Ok’s A Thousand Year Old Fox is that what I can only compare it to things that I’ve seen and I haven’t seen any other Korean horror or fantasy films of this vintage. It would be cheap to write several hundred words comparing a very well regarded genre film -- the Korean Film Archive calls it, "The pinnacle of 1960s cinematic horror, which successfully experiments with the ingenious combination of fantasy, action, and melodrama.” -- to its mostly forgotten remake or to similar Hong Kong films from the era, like Bao Fang's Painted Skin or Li Han Hsiang’s Enchanting Shadow. But the temptation is there.
The movie takes place during the (Korean) Three Kingdoms period, in which the kingdom of Silla is besieged by bandits. The kingdom’s most accomplished general succeeds in repelling bandits, but not the queen’s amorous attention. Already married, the general refuses the queen, who responds by banishing his wife and child while he is preoccupied by his campaign against banditry. His family does not travel too far before bandits attack them, raping and killing their maid and chasing mother and child through the countryside. The pursuing bandit wrests the child from the mother and stomps on it. The general’s wife, beaten and wounded, throws herself into a pond, which the bandits won’t go near, as lightning flashes in the sky and the water starts to turn.
The pond is actually the haunt of a fox spirit, who was defeated by a Shilla emperor one thousand years prior. Looking for a new body, she finds the general’s wife an acceptable candidate, and takes possession of her at night, attempting to take revenge on the descendent of the king who destroyed her corporeal form, the Queen of Shilla.
Might as well get it out: Shin, or his writer, or perhaps all of 1960’s South Korea seem to be really tied up in knots over female sexuality. Sexually transgressive women are the impetus for everything that goes wrong in the movie, from the fox spirit (which only accepts attractive young females as sacrifices, and is described as “lewd”) to the queen whose desire for the valorous general keeps her preoccupied while her kingdom burns. The script seems to juxtapose the queen to the libidinous fox and the two of them to the virtuous wife, but that might be reading too much into it. At least in A Thousand Year Old Fox, the husband seems worthy of the admiration he receives, unlike Seong Chunhyang’s weenie scholar.
Otherwise, A Thousand Year Old Fox feels like a creaky old fantasy film. The dialog is melodramatic and the acting is somewhat curious. For instance, Kim Ji-Su, who plays the general’s wife, screams her way through the scene where she and her child are attacked by bandits. That’s understandable. In fact, she screams mostly for the sake of her child, which is rightly maternal of her. But when the actual baby-stomping occurs, she just silently watches. A reaction shot might have made this work -- showing her so shocked that she can not react -- but the way it plays out, it looks like she just stands there like an idiot while her baby gets stomped. In fact, it might really just be bad direction. The camera frames the bandit stomping without actually staging a graphic infanticide, which is about as close to good taste as a genre movie with infanticide can veer, but it doesn’t really seem that concerned with just how awful such an action would really be, especially for, y'know, the mother.
Visually, the sets look cardboard and the primitive special effects have not aged well. I will say that Shin Sang-ok was a far more competent director than many of his contemporaries. There are not too many films of this type and age available for viewing outside of South Korea, but among the ones that can be seen rather easily is a film titled (at least on the Crash Masters dvd) Hurricane Sword, a sort of Korean take on Zatoichi with a blind swordswoman out for revenge. The difference in terms of shooting and editing between that film and A Thousand Year Old Fox is roughly comparable to that of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King.
While it’s quickly paced and not exactly boring, it seems like A Thousand Year Old Fox could have been far more effective had it actually done something to make the characters interesting, or at least slowed down long enough to let us know why these characters love each other. Shin made some really great melodramas with really memorable characters. Or at least that's what I hear. The only thing I've seen that fits that description is My Mother and Her Guest. It's unfortunate that he couldn't do that while also telling a story about supernatural possession and doomed love.