Last week on Lovecraft Country, Atticus decoded some of the Language of Adam to discover a startling three-letter message, “Die”. In that moment of emotion and understanding, Atticus didn’t reach out to his estranged father with whom he might share some demons, and he didn’t reach out to Leti with whom he’s developed a romance based on the shared experiences they’ve had in the magical realms. Nope, he dialed someone halfway around the world, someone we’ve heard from twice but still haven’t exactly met. This week, we got Ji-Ah’s story.
Daegu is not just the title of the episode, but it’s a town in South Korea that’s landlocked in the southeastern part of the country. We start in the year 1949, just before the start of the Korean War. Ji-Ah is a nursing student, and like a lot of young women of the era, there’s a lot of pressure on her to bring a man home. On the surface, this would seem like a simple desire on the part of a mother to see her daughter find a suitable husband, but we quickly learn that Ji-Ah’s mother In-Sook wants her to bring home a man so that she can have sex with him, eat his memories, and tear him to shreds.
“Ji-Ah’s tale is about how humanity can overcome all expectations, and how being a monster is often a matter of perception.”
Ji-Ah, you see, is a Kumiho, which isn’t Lovecraftian, but is a creature in Chinese and Korean folklore. A Kumiho is a shapeshifter, but it often takes the form of a beautiful young woman, and like a lot of folklore there’s some fairly conflicting stuff about its intentions. Kumihos were at one point considered helpful spirits, and at another point they’re considered malevolent, but in the case of Lovecraft Country, a Kumiho, and Ji-Ah, appear to be both.
In brief, Ji-Ah’s mother discovered that her husband was sexually abusing her daughter, and so she went a shaman who put the Kumiho in Ji-Ah’s body. The crux is that the Kumiho Ji-Ah has to “eat” 1,000 men to reclaim her humanity, and she’s made her way to 990. In-Sook wants her to hurry up and finish so that she can get her daughter back, but Ji-Ah herself is struggling with her humanity, is she a monster that her human mother should be rightfully frightened of, or can she aspire to be something more.
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Ji-Ah finds a kindred spirit in Judy Garland. At the beginning of the episode, we see her sing along with “The Trolley Song” in Meet Me in St. Louis, and later, on the brink of war, she takes in Easter Parade. In Ji-Ah’s mind her heart is free and full of song but in real life, she struggles to make connections and feel like she belongs. But Ji-Ah has more in common with Garland than she thought. The voice-over at the end was from audiotapes made by Garland shortly before her death in 1969, and see if you can detect the kind of language that might make someone feel like they’re a monster inside, or that she might feel like people see her as a monster:
“I don’t honestly understand, why I’ve the victim and been made the victim of so many untruths. Perhaps, you don’t understand what’s it like to pick up a paper and read things about yourself that aren’t true. Read, loathsome things that have nothing to do with your life, or you or your heart, or your beliefs or your kindnesses or your willingness. I’ve spent years and years and years trying to please. Through singing or acting. There’s nothing wrong with that. And yet I’ve constantly been written or talked about by certain individuals, that I’ll get to later, as an unfit person.”
Like Garland, Ji-Ah feels like people see her only as a monster, but perception is everything. In one of their many arguments, Ji-Ah tells In-Sook that her abuse at the hands of her father was only made possible because In-Sook was unwed when pregnant, and she married the first man she could so that she could avoid bringing shame to her family. The implication is that if In-Sook hasn’t behaved so rashly – marrying the wrong man, cursing her daughter – the human Ji-Ah wouldn’t be in the position she finds herself in. That’s an awful lot of psychological baggage for one woman to carry, even with supernatural abilities.
In Ji-Ah’s corner is Young-Ja, one of her fellow nurses, and it’s strongly implied that there’s more than just friendly feelings between them. Not necessarily a romantic attraction, but an appreciation that they’re both hiding secrets that they know could destroy them. For Young-Ja the secret is that she’s a Communist sympathizer and a spy, a fact that the American army learns later when the war is on, and Ji-Ah’s entire hospital shift is taken to a checkpoint and lined up for execution if the spy doesn’t surrender themselves. One of the army men doing the coercing is none other than Atticus Freeman.
The horror of watching her friend getting taken away by American troops never to be seen again sends Ji-Ah into a state of rage when Atticus later turns up injured in her hospital. Despite her better instincts, Ji-Ah starts to get close to Atticus as they discuss the differences between the film and book versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, and as Ji-Ah learns that Atticus also has a contentious relationship with his main parent. Despite herself, Ji-Ah starts to fall for Atticus, and starts to believe that the two of them can have a future, and that she won’t have to sacrifice him.
Of course, In-Sook is incredulous about Ji-Ah’s decision to love Atticus instead of killing him, but for a while both Atticus and Ji-Ah are happy. While Ji-Ah is able to control her “nine tails” (aka: her life-sucking tentacles) the first time she and Atticus make love, she loses control on Christmas and starts to absorb some of Atticus’ memories, and gets glimpses of his future. Atticus is too freaked out to get the message that Ji-Ah gets from his future: “Don’t go home, you’re going to die.” It’s also the end of Ji-Ah’s experiment in having a human relationship, and it breaks her heart just enough for In-Sook to provide some motherly affection.
“Will Atticus’ recent brush with dark forces make him more receptive to what Ji-Ah has to say, and what about all those deaths that Ji-Ah is meant to observe before the end of her journey?”
So what did this week’s detour to Korea tell us about the broader story? Ji-Ah’s tale is about how humanity can overcome all expectations, and how being a monster is often a matter of perception. It connects to last week’s discussion about how magic allows one the freedom to live the life they want to lead, and it seems like Ji-Ah tried to do just that. But responsibility also comes part and parcel with freedom, and if Ji-Ah isn’t going to take life, perhaps she’s now destined to save it. Will Atticus‘ recent brush with dark forces make him more receptive to what Ji-Ah has to say, and what about all those deaths that Ji-Ah is meant to observe before the end of her journey? Does that include Atticus? We’ll see.
Revisit your favorite moments of Lovecraft Country or give yourself a refresher before next by reading our previous recaps of the series HERE. Continue the conversation with us and be sure to let us know all your thoughts on the dark shadow looming over the characters of Lovecraft Country on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.