Like The Ring or The Grudge, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait works in curses. If a human being is wronged, there’s a curse placed on those who wronged them; in this case, that curse comes from the vengeful spirit of Muoi. There’s a lot of backstory for Muoi throughout this film, and the Korean perspective on curses makes for subtle differences in the way that the film plays out. It’s not all about having a certain number of days to live and the fear of trying to free oneself from that curse; instead, Muoi is centered on the vengeful story itself.
In Vietnamese folklore, there was a woman named Muoi who grew up to love a man who already had a rich and powerful fiancée. She loved him, and he loved her, or so she thought; their betrayal was uncovered by the hateful fiancée, who called upon her subjects to torture and terrorize poor Muoi. Her legs were broken, and she was held down until the fiancée flung acid onto her face, forever burning and bloodying her beautiful visage. Muoi committed suicide by hanging herself, but her spirit lives on in the form of an unfinished portrait that her lover once started of her.
She is called back by people seeking vengeance; they stare into the portrait and remove a pin that magically seals her spirit into the portrait. Once the act is committed, they must pay the price – their own body for Muoi. Such is the plight of Seoyeon (Ye-ryeon Cha), who travels to Vietnam after being spited by her boyfriend Jihoon. Both he and his girlfriend videotape as Seoyeon is violently raped by men; afterwards, she feels she must leave Korea or risk perpetual humiliation.
Our protagonist Yun-Hui (An Jo) is a writer, and Seoyeon is quick to tell her about the Muoi legend in Korea. It’s also important that Yun-Hui once wrote a book about Seoyeon’s sexual transgressions without uncovering the truth about them, so Seoyeon harbors a secret hatred of Yun-Hui that slowly and subtly exudes from her throughout Yun-Hui’s stay in Korea.
Most of Muoi is about Yun-Hui discovering the legend itself. She travels to Muoi’s home, lingering on the portrait of her as she explores the surroundings where she hanged herself; she breaks into a professor’s room to uncover his experiences of Muoi; and she begins to feel the presence of the ghost in Seoyeon’s apartment, where wallpaper begins to peel unexpectedly and nightmares of Seoyeon in awkward positions become the norm.
Muoi is atmospheric because of its settings, familiar in its dark and eerie buildings. The plot at first feels extremely familiar: there’s a grudge, there’s revenge, and there’s a malevolent spirit. But Muoi works differently through its progression; it’s not out to give a timeline for when someone is going to die, but having Yun-Hui uncover details about Seoyeon’s past that she never knew. This is where the tale of revenge becomes a powerful story, whereas earlier in the film the idea might have seemed out of place.
The movie has a lot of familiar scares, which is one of the most disappointing things about Muoi. There are creaking ghosts, mysterious contortions of the possessed, and dream states that feature girls with long and dripping hair. It’s all too similar to other Korean and Japanese films, but the plot makes up for it by branching out a bit, telling a very good character-driven story rather than a mystery about uncovering how to stop the curse.
And Muoi doesn’t stop once Yun-Hui finds the truth; it continues through its revenge story, making sure that the ghost gets what it wants. The twist at the end is fairly rushed, and it might be confusing at first. But it’s nice to see the film continuing down the inevitable road of the plot, rather than ending right after the curse manifests itself.
Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is creepy, and it does a good job of playing off the Asian ghost tales without copying too much from any of them. It stands on its own rather than lumped in together with those more popular tales; however, it might not be as surprising. The beauty of all portraits lies in the object expressed, and thankfully Muoi delivers with meaningful characters and a working mythos.
Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait on Rotten Tomatoes