I've seen it said that it saved the Korean film industry, which had been at a low point in 2008. It was a big word-of-mouth hit and launched a wave of intense Korean thrillers like The Yellow Sea, The Unjust, Bedevilled
, Haunters, The Man From Nowhere and Troubleshooter.
However that said, to help you control your expectations, it's not stunningly brilliant. It's a good serial killer flick. That's about it. It's either low-key or down-and-dirty, depending on how you want to call it. Its main selling point is the fact that it's... well, Korean. After all, their cinema's best-known for terrifying revenge flicks like Oldboy
. Of course I'm not saying that Korea is incapable of making heartwarming films of sunshine and flowers, in which the universe is a just place and nice things happen to good people. I'm sure there are... oooh, tens of Korean films like that.
I just haven't found any yet.
It's a film about two males and two females. Don't expect them to be happy afterwards, or indeed necessarily alive. The main character, Yun-seok Kim, is fairly unpleasant. He used to be a dirty policeman until he got fired two years ago and became a pimp. Now he runs a stable of prostitutes and occasionally beats people up. Some of his girls have recently disappeared, but because this cost him money, he thinks they've merely run away and ignores anyone who tries to say it's more sinister than that. He's violent, foul-mouthed, frequently wrong and all told a pretty nasty customer.
However he's an angel compared with Jung-woo Ha, whose character is loosely based on a real Korean serial killer, Yoo Young-chul. The psychology is different, but the outcome is the same when it comes to prostitutes and hammers. (There's also no cannibalism in the film, although human flesh gets eaten.)
The film begins with Kim going about his daily business, which is stressful because he's got a shortage of girls. Some have disappeared and others are quitting. A customer phones and asks for a prostitute, so he phones up Yeong-hie Seo and bullies her into doing the job, despite the fact that she's sick at home with her seven-year-old daughter. Shortly afterwards, he comes to a nasty realisation. That customer was the last person to see his two disappeared girls. (Yes, it's Ha.) Naturally Kim gets straight on the phone to Seo and tells her... to go along with Ha to his house, disappear into the bathroom and then text Kim its address. All he has at the moment is a phone number, you see.
In other words, he's deliberately sent one of his girls home with a serial killer. In fairness though, at this stage he still doesn't think anyone's been killed. His current theory is that his girls are being kidnapped and sold.
This doesn't go well. The plot takes some unexpected turns, short-cutting an entire movie's worth of plot in the first act, and before long we're into territory that you don't expect in most serial killer movies. I won't spoil it.
South Korea's police come off looking terrible. They're not as bad as I hear they are in Memories of Murder
, but they're still corrupt, unreliable, vulnerable to political pressure and happy to allow suspects to get beaten up. The police chief tells his men to make stuff up and fake evidence. The public prosecutor thinks they're full of shit and he's right, although I still hope he lost his job over the events of this film, or for preference got his legs broken. I'm not saying that they're incompetent, mind you. Their working practices leave a lot to be desired, but they are still cops and they still want to solve crimes, especially the ones we see here. They also don't seem noticeably less intelligent than the cops you'll see in American films. You just wouldn't trust them as far as you could throw them. I knew true horror at the end when I suddenly became afraid of a possible monstrous injustice and was thinking "not again".
The cinematography isn't pretty. It looks kind of cheap, to be honest, although I suspect this might be at least partially deliberate. There's subtle use of hand-held cameras, for instance. I liked the results, which feel real and immediate. However having said all that, it won Best Cinematography (not to mention five other awards) at the 2008 Daejong Film Awards, so what do I know?
Ha is quite interesting. He's not a supervillain, like Hannibal Lecter. On the contrary, he's kind of pathetic and has weird bursts of honesty that may or may not have been under his control. His scene with the psychologist is memorable, though.
The film's not just about bad men, though. I mentioned females, which was a carefully chosen word because I was thinking of Yeong-hie Seo and her seven-year-old daughter, played by Yoo-Jeong Kim. The latter in particular adds a key human dimension to the movie.
This isn't a revolutionary film. It's merely a solid one, which rightly did very well with audiences and inspired a bunch of other Korean films in a similar vein. Its storyline is surprising. Some of what happens in here is intended to make you angry. The remake rights have been bought by Warner Bros and apparently also this year there was an Indian film called Murder 2 with a very similar plot. Definitely recommendable. It's not a glamorous or even always very exciting movie, but it feels almost disturbingly realistic and the last half-hour in particular takes it somewhere worth seeing. Watch more Korean films.