Lovecraft Country just keeps getting bolder, doesn’t it? This week’s episode took place 7,000 miles from Chicago, approximately three years before the events of episode one, introduced a new cast of characters and drew on folklore that has no obvious connection to HP Lovecraft. Or does it? More on this later …
So it was Ji-Ah (the Korean-American actor Jamie Chung) on the end of the phone line last week. This character has been teased since episode one, when Tic (Jonathan Majors) called her from the phone in Montrose’s apartment, but hung up without speaking. In episode two, she was the nightmare vision that engaged Tic in hand-to-hand combat while he was confined to his room in the Braithwhite mansion. Here, at last, we got a proper introduction.
Some things you need to know about Ji-Ah: she is a student nurse, she lives with her widowed mother in the South Korean city of Daegu, and she is a huge Judy Garland fan. (There probably isn’t much overlap in the Venn diagram of Garland stans and K-horror appreciators, but those of us who do cross over were in for a treat.) We met her in a near-empty cinema in “Fall 1949” watching the 1944 Garland classic Meet Me in St Louis and later, at a speed-dating event, or “Meet-Ing”, where she seemed overly reliant on Garland-based chat-up lines.
That is another thing about Ji-Ah; she has got no game. Which probably has something to do with the fact that she is a kumiho, or nine-tailed fox spirit. These originate in east Asian folklore, often seducing unwitting men by taking the form of a beautiful woman. There are no kumiho in Lovecraft’s stories – his orientalism was rarely a respectful homage. They do, however appear in the 1981 Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and, as some of you have observed, Lovecraft Country seems to draw from these non-canonical spin-offs (see also the Call of Cthulhu video game) as much as from Lovecraft’s writing, or even Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel.
Even if you had never heard of a kumiho, though, you probably had an inkling that some terrible fate would befall any man who went home with Ji-Ah. When she did finally manage to pull (it was only a matter of ditching the Garland impressions), that is exactly what happened. We thought her mother (Cindy Chang) was merely a traditionalist intent on marrying off her daughter to burnish the family reputation, but something much darker was afoot.
I know some viewers feel it is an affront to Lovecraft’s prudish legacy when any sexy stuff goes on in Lovecraft Country, but they can at least rest assured that these shenanigans rarely go unpunished. Some of us are still reeling from “serpent penis” in episode one, so when the kumiho assumed her true furry form and began penetrating her victim from nine orifices, stealing his memories to boot, we were in for a shock.
Ji-Ah has a monstrous past and monstrous powers, but does that make her a monster? This kind of standalone episode could never have worked without a strong, charismatic performance at its centre and Chung delivered that, capturing our attention and even our loyalty within moments of appearing on screen. So by the time Tic made his entrance, nearly 30 minutes in, we already knew enough of Ji-Ah’s backstory of sexual abuse and emotional neglect to feel sympathy for her. She was conflicted about this maternally mandated vengeance mission and so were we.
Communist-sympathising nurse Young-Ja (Prisca Kim) was one of the few people to show Ji-Ah any kindness, encouraging her to stand up for herself (“Your mother can’t see you, just who she wants you to be”). Then Tic comes along and executes Young-Ja, with a single bullet to the head and Ji-Ah determines that he will be her 100th victim, thus releasing her from the kumiho’s possession (that is, assuming Ji-Ah and the fox spirit are not already one).
When Ji-Ah and Tic fall for each other, plans change, of course. They bond over books (The Count of Monte Cristo), movies (Garland’s 1950 musical Summer Stock) and difficult relationships with their parents. Alongside the other more expected genre elements, this episode featured some real, swoonsome romance – I am thinking particularly of the special date Tic organises with Uncle George’s help. You know what they say about the course of true love, though. Obstacles in this case included the legacy of Japanese colonialism, multiple US army war crimes, two unloving parents and nine furry fox tails.
It was only the latter that truly came between them. Literally. Ji-Ah claimed to be able to resist the compulsion for a furry fumble – “I can control my tails,” she told her mother – but, evidently, Tic has a way of making women lose control, despite his inexperience in the bedroom. While she managed to throw him off before it was too late, she did access both his memories and a premonition of his future: a bus to Chicago; Leti’s concerned face; an adult baptism; Tic being suspended from a wall. She warned him not to return to the US and that doing so will result in his death. But, well … we know what happened next.
If you have seen Da Five Bloods, you will know the experience of African American soldiers fighting wars in Asia is familiar thematic territory for Majors. This episode had echoes of Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objections featured in the beginning of Spike Lee’s film: “And shoot them for what? They never lynched me.”
I have recently started watching – and very much enjoying – Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens on BBC Three. So imagine my delight to see a new fave, Jamie Chung, pop up in the credits there. She plays young Grandma.
Summer Stock provides this episode with its most sweetly romantic moment, but the film’s production was famously troubled, as poor old Garland struggled with her longstanding addictions. It was her last film for MGM.
“It may also be because it’s written by a negro man” – Tic’s speculation on Montrose’s fondness for The Count of Monte Cristo refers to the racial heritage of its author, Alexandre Dumas. His paternal grandmother was Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved African.
No Cardi B was shoehorned on to the soundtrack this week – it would have been a stretch, even for this show. The one experimental touch did work rather well, however, a bitter extract from the memoir audio tapes Garland recorded towards the end of her life.
Dayna Pink, the costume designer, and Kalina Ivanov, the production designer, deserve special mention this week. I loved the traditional-with-mid-century-twist outfit that Ji-Ah used to lure her first victim. That final snowy visit to the shaman was gorgeous, too, with its subtle visual nods to The Wizard of Oz.
If you are new to this kind of Korean folklore-tinged horror, and like what you see, I highly recommend Na Hong-jin’s 2016 film The Wailing.
Tic and Leti lovewatch
Quote of the week
“We’ve both done monstrous things, but that does not make us monsters!”