The rules are simple enough: because orphaned slacker Sang-Man (Cha Tae-Hyun) repeatedly fails to properly commit suicide, he will be haunted by four ghosts until he purifies himself by helping each one of them fulfill a final wish. The ghosts are a smooth-talking old codger, a chubby taxi driver in a powder blue suit, an always-sobbing woman, and a young boy with much to prove. A Korean poster with English titles calls them “Mr. Perverted”, “Mr. Smoky”, “Ms. Weepy” and “Little Greedy”; they’re a package deal, but only one can possess his body at a time. Their growth as a team helps Sang-Man turn his life around, gain the trust of a totally hot nurse in his ward, and just maybe shake his lifelong depression.
He’s constantly being terrorized by the ghosts onscreen, but director Kim Yeong-Tak smash-cuts back to Sang-Man—alone, trapped in a sterile reality where nobody will listen to him—for maximum comedic impact. To Sang-Man’s crush, he looks like a schizophrenic train wreck, alternately bratty, coddling, taciturn and randy—always arguing with himself out loud. When he’s possessed by the 8-year-old at an eating contest and wins, he becomes a hero to her similarly-aged son.
The ensemble cast registers strongly, eating all the food in Sang-Man’s apartment and dispensing sagacious tidbits to help him jumpstart his love life. Each ghost is granted their own individual opportunity to test his commitment and school him a little, but Cha is the star, bearing the requirements of five separate characters. Accounting for the actual man buried under all those layers of performance, it’s a real treat to watch him deftly switch from one role to another in breathless syncopation.
Since Hello Ghost lacks U.S. distribution, see it at MoMA before the American remake spearheaded by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Bicentennial Man). For one, it takes after a style of commercialistic, unmistakably American anti-verité comedy (bright colors, perfectly centered frames, ubiquitous musical cues) which isn’t popular anymore. It’s too artful to be a sitcom, but too goofy and genre-bound to be a living, breathing film; its true spiritual predecessors are comedies with directors like Tashlin or Lubitsch. At one point, Sang-Man has a tearjerking epiphany while his mouth is crammed full of bibimbap. It’s a long take.
Columbus probably identified with Kim’s almost overwhelming schmaltz—in more ways than one, the dead teach Sang-Man how to live. But Columbus’s in-development is shorn of its true cultural roots already, as Hello Ghost is from a country with a not-negligible suicide rate—especially among young people. Commensurate with nearly every Korean movie that gets distribution here, it has a jet-black streak, evincing a blunt refusal to flinch in the face of death, the type of macabre humor that would (and probably will) not bypass Hollywood’s self-lacerating politburo. Down to the last frame, Kim refuses to barf up an unblemished happy ending; Hello Ghost is doubly incisive for it.