‘Exhuma’ Ending Explained & Symbolisms: Did The Anima Possess Bong-gil?


Jae-hyun Jang’s South Korean horror-thriller Exhuma maintains an appearance of neverending depth through one simple trick. You’ll find yourself overwhelmed by the erratic trip the story takes to reach its climax. And because you can’t be expected to be well-versed in Japanese colonial history, the Japanese-Korean war, and the Korean Feng Shui practices that have long been a part of their culture, you’ll spend much time trying to grasp the references to even notice that Exhuma is neither scary nor an experience that’d feel anything more than a lesson on its subject matter. But by all means, once this article familiarizes you with the history and mythology the ghosts and ghouls seem to be tethered to, do give Exhuma another watch.

Spoiler Alert

What happens in the film?

Park Ji-yong’s done with relying on Western medicine to fix his newborn son’s inexplicable condition. When a shaman, Hwarim, is called to take a look, she and her assistant, Bong-gil, are quick to recognize the darkness that surrounds the Park family. There’s a generational curse that’s been haunting the eldest grandchildren. An ancestor, Park Ji-yong’s grandfather, to be exact, has been calling his kin from beyond the grave. The solution is to perform an exhumation of the grave. And from how popular geomancer Sang-deok seems to be among the upper 1% of the Korean population, it looks like exhuming the grave to either change the location of the dead or fix whatever’s bothering them in the afterlife is something that happens quite often in Korea. Sang-deok’s mastery of Feng Shui makes him quite the expert in picking out the best spot for a grave or a new building. The promise of a huge payday of course excites Sang-deok, but considering he’s not a crook and respects the rituals and the repercussions of a botched one, he’s put off by the location of Ji-yong’s grandfather’s grave. What he can’t figure out is why Ji-yong’s grandfather’s grave is atop a mountain that’s frequented by foxes. In Feng Shui, foxes and graves don’t quite mix. But there’s a simpler, more scientific explanation for that belief. In ancient Korea, people didn’t bury their dead kin in the areas where foxes roamed simply because they were worried the foxes would dig up the grave. And I guess that somewhat underpins the very reasoning behind Feng Shui being an elemental part of Korean culture. It doesn’t stray too far from science, after all. 

Why was Grandfather Park’s spirit so angry?

If it weren’t for their concern about Ji-yong’s newborn, Hwarim and Sang-deok would’ve dropped the case. But with Hwarim’s ritual to ensure a safe exhumation, they go ahead anyway. Things would’ve gone much better had the guy at the morgue not opened the coffin. As Grandfather Park’s spirit clashes against Hwarim on his way to Ji-yong’s house, the shaman figures out that he’s up to no good. In the aftermath, Ji-yong’s parents die gnarly deaths before Ji-yong himself is possessed and killed right before Sang-deok’s eyes. It’s a devastatingly frustrating ordeal for Sang-deok and co., considering they did give it their all to protect the family. And in case you were wondering why Grandfather Park was out for his family’s blood, there’s a pretty simple reason behind his grudge. The burial site, being a Feng Shui nightmare, never let his spirit be at peace. For over a hundred years, his painful calling has been ignored by his family. He’s been tormented by hunger and thirst, which explains why he gorges on the food before killing Ji-yong’s father, and Ji-yong chugs down gallons of water before his neck’s twisted in a very campy fashion. Grandfather Park’s furious at his bloodline for being left unheard while his spirit writhed in pain inside his coffin for a century. And what he says through Bong-gil when Hwarim’s summoning ties his spirit to him lays his agenda bare. He’s here to take his family back to the dark realm where he belongs. Luckily, before he can kill Ji-yong’s newborn, Sang-deok gets Ji-yong’s auntie’s permission to cremate his remains. His spirit is expelled from the mortal realm before he can punish his innocent great-grandson for the torment he took no part in. 

What was the Park family’s secret?

Neither Hwarim nor Sang-deok actually bought Ji-yong’s feeble attempt at explaining why his grandfather’s very expensive cypress coffin was buried at such an odd location. But there are a number of things they find even more suspicious about the circumstances than Ji-yong’s claim that the humble tomb was to deter the grave robbers. Apparently, a monk named Gisune chose this place for the grave. And to add to the peculiarity of it all, there’s a very specific set of coordinates engraved on the tomb. Sang-deok finds it especially fishy how desperately Ji-yong wants them to cremate the remains along with the coffin and be done with it once and for all. But none of Sang-deok’s suspicions about the strange burial site and the Park family actually go anywhere until an oddly huge coffin is unearthed from underneath where Grandfather Park was buried. The havoc wreaked by the vicious spirit of a behemoth, demonic samurai that comes out of the coffin forces Sang-deok and Hwarim to seek answers from Ji-yong’s auntie. By now, Sang-deok has already figured out that Grandfather Park was a traitor who sold out his own country to the enemy when the Japanese colonizers were occupying the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. The money and power he received as a reward for his betrayal of his own people still determine the Park family’s status in the current timeline. With Grandfather Park, the family buried their shame on top of the mountain that stands near the 38th Parallel, the border between North Korea and South Korea. But even though their secret is now out in the open, Ji-yong’s auntie claims she doesn’t know why her father was allotted such an awful burial site despite his unwavering loyalty to the Japanese. 

What’s The Significance Of The Snake?

When Exhuma isn’t busy detailing the importance of the 5 elements (water, fire, earth, wood, and metal) in Korean Feng Shui, it’s peppering the narrative with hints about how closely Hwarim’s ritualistic practices are related to Taoism. Like in Feng Shui, the harmony between the five elements is crucial in the Chinese Taoist doctrines. And that brings me to that freaky snake that a grave digger made a big mistake in killing after Grandfather Park’s coffin was exhumed. He hasn’t been okay ever since, and it’s only to help him get better that Sang-deok goes back to the grave in the first place. If you look closely, the severed head of the snake looks eerily human. And that’s because it’s no ordinary snake. It’s a Nure Onna, a creature in Japanese folklore with the head of a woman and the body of a snake. If we’re to go by the Taoist understanding of the 5 elements, the snake was the only water element in the grave, ensuring the equilibrium that trapped the Anima (the Japanese samurai demon).  Killing the Nure Onna messed with the harmony of the elements and freed the Anima. 

Who is Gisune?

To answer that, I first have to go over the origin of the Anima. Sang-deok and Hwarim were right to take the Anima’s coffin to the nearby Boguksa temple. But what they couldn’t possibly fathom was that no amount of horse blood or glutinous rice could trap what was inside the coffin. After butchering the temple’s monk and a barn worker, the Anima takes over Bong-gil and makes him his puppet. What’s intriguing about this murderous spirit who can turn into an orb of fire is his fondness for sweetfish and melon. It’s another way for you to connect the Anima back to its living form, a Japanese samurai who had a fondness for sweetfish. But the creation of this vicious Anima out of a regular Japanese samurai could’ve only been achieved by someone immensely powerful. And that’s where Gisune comes in. Hwarim’s sister rightly recognizes Gisune as a Japanese Onmyoji. Onmyojis are believed to be formidable spiritualists. It’s also mentioned that Hwarim’s master once faced this terrifying Onmyoji and somehow lived to tell the tale.

The film makes it a point to refer to Gisune as “the fox,” and he’s the same pale man in the pictures with Grandfather Park. Now this, along with the foxes that surround the grave and the recurrent fox references in Exhuma, is a very intentional hint that is supposed to reveal Gisune’s actual identity. And if we’re to go by that, Gisune seems to be a derivative of the Japanese Kitsune. That’d clarify why Gisune is “the fox” in the story, given that Kitsune are powerful supernatural foxes in Japanese folklore. So to lay it out in simpler terms for you, Gisune was an evil fox spirit who transformed the Japanese samurai into a bloodthirsty Anima. He’s the one who instructed the Park family to bury Grandfather Park atop the Anima’s coffin so as to keep the Anima’s location a secret. 

What Is The Story Of The Iron Stakes?

The Boguksa temple had a big part to play in Sang-deok looking beyond the immediate threat and trying to get an idea about the bigger conspiracy at play. He came to know about the grave robbers who frequented the area a century ago and left behind their equipment. What Sang-deok later came to learn from the book that belonged to the grave robbers was that they were serving a national purpose. And this brings us to another Korean legend that’s been around ever since the Japanese’s attempt to occupy Korea. In a country where Feng Shui heavily influences the national cultural fabric and the day-to-day lives of the people, the energy running through the grounds is of the utmost significance. For centuries, Korean geomancers have been trying to battle the Feng Shui terrorism carried out by the Japanese during colonization. It is said that the Japanese impaled the ground with iron stakes to block the Feng Shui energy that’s considered the heart of the Korean national spirit. It was supposed to weaken Korea, and even the government used to aid the hikes taken by the Korean people who were looking for these iron stakes.

In Exhuma, the grave robbers were actually a group of patriots and possibly shamans (considering the engravement on their tools) who called themselves the “Iron Blood Alliance” and were out on a quest to find these iron stakes. When Ji-yong was possessed, he said, “The fox cut off the tiger’s waist.” It takes a while for Sang-deok to see what is right in front of his eyes, but he eventually figures out that the tiger is supposed to represent the map of the Korean peninsula. If “the fox” is Gisune and an iron stake was put through the “waist” of the “tiger,” Grandfather Park and the Anima’s burial site have to be a spot pierced by one of these stakes. Grandfather Park’s coffin was only placed in that spot a hundred years ago so that it could dissuade people from looking underneath and finding the iron stake. The coordinates on the tomb were the exact location of the “tiger’s waist,” where the iron stake was put to divide the nation in half.  

How does Sang-deok kill the Anima?

In Exhuma, we’ve come to know Sang-deok, Hwarim, Bong-gil, and even the mortician Young-geun as lionhearted heroes who’d selflessly move mountains when someone’s in need of their help. Granted, they got into this whole mess because the client was filthy rich, but in the midst of all the hauntings and killings, they truly realized the gravity of the situation and went through a hellish ordeal to put an end to it. Hwarim and Bong-gil were about to move on with their lives when they chose to offer their assistance in taking care of the Anima’s coffin. And even though it got excruciating for Hwarim to see Bong-gil in such a terrible state when his mind became one with the Anima’s, she and her sisters refused to give up and pulled out all the stops to help him out. Young-geun and Hwarim were aware of the huge risk Sang-deok was taking by going back to the burial site. Even if the iron stake was there, like he suspected, they’d need to distract the Anima for long enough so that Sang-deok could dig it up. Luckily, Hwarim has a ritual up her sleeve to direct the Anima’s attention to a tree for a short period of time. 

Before they could even begin the process, they had to secure every end and prepare for the worst possibilities. Hwarim has noticed that the Anima avoided the protective inscriptions tattooed on Bong-gil when he attacked him. And since Bong-gil is being puppeteered by the Anima, it only makes sense to cover him head to toe in the protective inscription. With Hwarim’s sisters guarding Bong-gil with a chicken they’re ready to sacrifice should the need arise, Hwarim, Sang-deok, and Young-geun paint the same inscription all over themselves and head to the burial site. Hwarim is initially successful in distracting the Anima, but there’s no iron stake to be found in the hollow grave. You might’ve noticed that Hwarim speaks to the spirit of her grandmother like she’s always around. Chances are, Hwarim’s grandmother was a powerful shaman as well. And considering Hwarim’s sisters are also pretty capable with the chants and the rituals themselves, I’d say that it’s possibly a genetic gift. When the Anima gets restless and threatens Hwarim’s life, what holds him back is the combined effect of the protective inscription and the presence of her grandma’s spirit. But why does the inscription even work on someone as powerful as the Anima? To understand that, you have to pay close attention to what he says to Hwarim. The Anima was admittedly a Japanese samurai who fought in the Battle of Sekigahara. Gisune had him locked up in the Daitoku Temple, which is how the Anima came to fear the Buddhist inscriptions that now protect the group. 

In Exhuma‘s ending, Sang-deok doesn’t find an iron stake in the grave because he doesn’t quite know what he’s looking for. Gisune was careful in picking the iron stake for the most crucial spot in all of Korea. So, instead of a regular stake, he chose a Japanese samurai who killed 10,000 soldiers on the battlefield as the vessel for a special katana. The flaming iron katana was placed inside the samurai, creating the Anima. Since the Anima himself is supposed to act as the iron stake for this specific spot, the coffin was buried as though it were stabbed into the earth. In the ending sequence, Sang-deok’s knowledge of Feng Shui comes in handy in saving them from the Anima. If there’s peace and prosperity to be found in creating an equilibrium between the five elements, the elements can be used to subdue one another too. The Anima represents fire and metal. And if he’s attacked with a piece of soaked wood, the wood will nullify the power of the metal, and the water will overpower the fire. As Sang-deok soaks the engraved pickaxe that belongs to the people of the Iron Blood Alliance with his blood, he basically creates a weapon with the two elements (wood and water) that cancel out the elements that empower the Anima (fire and metal). In the same ground where his ancestors fought and shed their blood, Sang-deok’s blood kills the Anima–the last remnant of the coloninizers. So in a way, Sang-deok’s been fighting a patriotic battle even without being aware of it until the very end. And as a reward, he finds a sense of belonging with Hwarim, Bong-gil, and Young-geun. Nothing binds people together like fighting an ancient zombie samurai together, right? 

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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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