Comedy, drama and the occult collide in Sell Your Haunted House, a new TV series from South Korean channel KBS2 starring Jang Na-ra and Jung Yong-hwa. The premise is simple: an exorcist works as a property agent, clearing buildings haunted by spirits with a grudge so that they may then be sold at market price.
The exorcist is called Hong Ji-a (Jang) and the name of her operation is Great Real Estate – also the Korean name of the show. She runs the business on the first floor of the building with the help of Joo Hwa-jung (Kang Mal-geum), who handles the business side, and she lives upstairs, where she indulges in television shopping – a habit she still gets nagged at about by her mother. Well, not nagged so much as harshly stared at by the ghost of her mother, who died 20 years ago.
Ji-a works at night and dresses in an all-black, quasi-goth get-up, wearing any one of the dozens of impulsively bought pairs of black boots that she owns – she swears they’re all different. She can feel and see spirits and after giving chase, she traps them in a force field with the help of an instrument that would best be described as a supernatural nail gun.
However, for the crucial last step she needs help – someone to be possessed by the ghost. For this she employs young “psychics”, who are paid very handsomely to be possessed, at which point the ghost will fight with the well-trained Ji-a, until she stabs them with a supernatural bineo (a traditional Korean hairpin), thus releasing their spirit from the mortal world.
She recruits these psychics by making them step over a bowl of rice. If the rice glows blue – only shamans can see this – they have the ability to be possessed by spirits. She also subjects them to a second test, of walking up the stairs to her flat. The young men invariably fail, making it only a few steps before losing consciousness, and we learn that Ji-a needs a particularly strong psychic to help her mother pass on to the afterworld.
Meanwhile, we have Oh In-bum (Jung), an arrogant con man who employs trickery to convince homeowners that their abodes are haunted . He then shows up as a university researcher with an experimental device that supposedly rids the surrounding area of paranormal activity.
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In-bum, and his sidekick Heo Ji-chul (Kang Hong-suk), pay people to install equipment as part of their “research”. Naturally, these devices are effective and (when the research is over) the panicky residents offer to buy them at outrageous prices.
Ji-a and In-bum meet when they’re both working on the same building and one night, as Ji-a performs her exorcism, In-bum is suddenly possessed when a second, unexpected spirit materialises.
In-bum is a psychic, but it takes some time to convince him of this fact, since psychics have no recollection of being possessed. But In-bum’s ability is stronger than that of most psychics, since he unwittingly absorbs the memories of spirits that pass through him. Ji-a begins to wonder: might he be strong enough to help her mother?
Similar to the concurrently airing Taxi Driver, Sell Your Haunted House mixes a long-form narrative with an episode structure. It will take some time to successfully exorcise the spirit of Ji-a’s mother, but the question is what event in her past is making it so hard for her to pass on? We quickly learn that In-bum’s past also appears to be connected with Ji-a’s.
Meanwhile, the Great Real Estate business, now with In-bum and Ji-chul on board, works new locations in different episodes, each haunted by spirits with tragic backstories that must be unravelled.
As horror, Sell Your Haunted House isn’t likely to frighten too many viewers, but the staging of the hauntings and exorcisms are pleasingly atmospheric. The Great Real Estate building is also wonderfully designed; it’s colourful, cosy and rich in character.
The building has a rustic charm that recalls other principal locations in recent K-dramas, such as the noodle house in The Uncanny Counter . It is also nestled in a low-market area, which crucially, and predictably, paves the way for a classic K-drama antagonist, as low-rent gangsters are trying to clear the neighbourhood for redevelopment. The shady magnate behind them is likely to become the show’s major villain.
The episodic stories are familiar and simplistic, as is the overarching narrative, the secrets of which seem haphazardly festooned with a diaphanous veil. Yet the show’s easy-going charms are manifold, not least of which is the dynamite central performance by Jang.
Ji-a is a cool customer with an icy gaze and commanding strut, yet also a relatable character through her shopping addiction and her love of fried chicken . Jang is the life of the show and she makes it easy to ignore some of its shortcomings.
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In fact, Jang is so strong in the lead that some of the other supporting characters have trouble standing out. As In-bum, Jung, though more than serviceable, is clearly the weaker of the two leads – but at least that matches the dynamic of the characters.
Sell Your Haunted House is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.