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This is a brilliant and macabre (and i do really mean macabre, even by my high standards in the genre) tale of lust, passion, and lives turned around by the stupidest of accident. This movie is another great example of what South Korean cinema has been producing in the past 5 years. A movie definitely for adults, with shockingly violent material, it will stir you and make you question your values, your life, what you take for granted, but most importantly, it will shake you and rub you the wrong way. This is a film that left a deep mark on me, and on the person i watched it with. To this day, we still talk about it and can't help but feel a shiver down our spine. Not technically a horror movie, it is nevertheless very violent, with more blood than you ever saw exept in a gore movie, and troubled violent emotions. On top of all that, it is immensely tragic, and i guarantee you will think about the main characters long after the credits rolled, and that you will never think of a car the same way. This is, by all means, a truly dark masterpiece.
Ki-hoon (Suk-kyu Han, one of Korea's top male star) is a desillisioned detective with a troubling case on his hands. A woman, drenched in blood, was rescued after falling on the ground in the street. Later, it was found that her husband had just been violently killed, his head bashed in with a tabletop marble statue. Obviously the woman, his wife, is a prime suspect. Did she do it? All points to yes, but the story is not as simple as that and in great relativistic way, we find out that she is guilty, but not the way we think. And she almost gets away with it in a way that will frustrate anyone who wants justice to be served. There is truly a great twist there.
At home, Ki-hoon fares no better. He is married to the lead concert cellist for the Seoul Philharmonic, a talented and beautiful woman. But we discover that underneath all the wonderful appearences, the mariage is rather stale. Ki-hoon, as a matter of fact, is having an affair with a former college flame, Ga-Hee (Eun-ju Lee), now the lead singer at Seoul's Blue Note club. She is young, gorgeous, and talented. As the movie progresses, we discover how conflicted Ki-hoon is with his relationship, and full of despair and on the brink of depression Ga-Hee is. We also learn later that the two woman do know each other and share a strange past. And finally, the last 30mn of the movie will leave you literally breathless. I can't give too many details but let's say that the stupidest of accidental carelessness plunges our two lead protagonists into a situation where they will slowly die over the course of 4 days. The movie has throughout a very dark tone of moral ambiguity, uncontrollable lust, emotionally twisted relationships, and murder. But the last 30mn tops it all with a focus on those two characters, literally slowly dying of hunger and thirst, losing their minds, with all the normal bodily functions adding to an already unbearable situation in a confined space with very little light. I was feeling claustrophobic, nautious, out of breadth, and so infinitely sad for those characters in such a tragic situation. I have never felt like this in a movie since maybe OldBoy last year. And even there, OldBoy was so flamboyant that the emotional side was less strong. In this film, you get raw emotions.
What adds to the great tragedy and horrific end this film portrays is the fact that lead actress Eun-ju LEE committed suicide a few months after the film's wrap up. God bless her soul. And i don't mean a simple suicide either. She hung herself from a window in her country house after she slit her wrists. Many have suggested that this role had been so tough on her, and that combined with other sorrows in her life, that's why she did it. Nevertheless, this adds a macabre, but real dimension to her role, and her performance, that i don't think i'll ever forget. This is perhaps the most touching and affecting performance i have ever seen. She was gorgeous, and a great actress. The rest of the cast, even if highly competent, can't compete with that level of realism though of course. It doesn't diminish in any way the quality of their performances but, throughout the movie, all you want is to see more or Eun-ju LEE
On other fronts, the movie displays the level of professionalism one now expects from South Korean cinema. The Art Direction is richly layered and breath taking. In particular, Ga-Hee's apartment had me drooling. I have been in the market for the past several months to buy an apartment in Manhattan, and seeing this place in Seoul, perhaps a $10M large triplex with roof deck and a private pool had me dreaming certainly. The music is fantastic, with highlights of classical and jazz music that i paricularly appreciated. The cinematography is also very clean, with great use of light and colors. The last scene in particular is amazing because of the low-light condition and how the camera work sucks you in that small space.
As for the Writing, it is exceptional in that it successfully pulls together a truly macabre end to a complex domestic drama, with fairly explicit sexuality and richly described characters, tinted with an effective detective thriller. Because of the violence and the intensity of emotions in this film affected me so much, i'd go as far as classifying this as a horror movie, albeit not in the Gore/Fantasy sense of the genre. What i found most important though is how the movie conveys throughout the story the sense of utter frustration. I don't know if you ever felt that way, but i have... doing something, and because of the stupidest of mistake, see all your work disappear or be reduced to nothing right in front of you, unable to do anything to save it. Sometimes, i felt like putting my fist through the wall out of sheer frustration. In this film, the characters are guilty of greed, greed for lust and emotions that they are never quite able to satisfy, when suddenly, the stupidest of accident destroys it all. In retrospect, all these troubled and difficult lives those characters have built for themselves are reduced to nothingness. The writing makes these feelings very potent for the viewer. The only fault i have, and the reason why Writing and Direction did not get 5 stars in my rating is that i think the ending could have been made more believable with just a few changes in the script. But i'll leave you the judge of that. In spite of this minor quible, the movie was still immensely effective obviously.
This notion that a film can be ambitious in terms of the scope of the story it tells, and the range of emotions characters go through (from gidly happiness to suicidal despair), seems to me to be the mark of Korean cinema today. I do love that though. I have personally wondered why a film should rest purely on a single genre, or maybe two. I like realism in films, even if greatly augmented by artistry. What is most important to me is to truly get a slice of life from characters i will care about, packaged in a flamboyant direction, cinematography, great art direction and music. It's hard for me to believe that you can have a comedy and no tragedy at the same time, of have a light film that makes you deeply think at the same time. Woody Allen's profound yet delighful Crimes And Misdemeanors is a poster child for me of the kind of movies i love. If a film is any ambitious, and presents an expansive story, then it cannot, at least for me, stick to a single genre, a single class of emotions. With Korean cinema, this mixture of genres i have been craving for has finally made it as a common attribute of the better films produced there. For Korean films, it seemingly seems OK to have an erotically charged movie with moments where you'll split your sides laughing, or a College low-brow comedy with truly erotic moments, and serious themes such as abortion (see Sex Is Zero). Even though i'd agree that most people don't see cinema this way, to me, i have a hard time appreciating a story that doesn't mirror life, with all its facets. It's OK for me to have a well rounded and intelligent family drama sprinkled with tragic and horrific elements (the amazing The Good Lawyer's Wife). It's OK for me to have a family film that can also be rated NC-17 (Kiss Me Much). This genre mixing is very attractive to me and makes Korena cinema a true favorite of mine these days.
All in all, this is another brilliant, if disturbing, complex story that mixes elements of strong sexually explicit material, thriller elements, tragedy, family drama, unforgetable characters and violence in a package that only south Korean cinema knows how to deliver these days. This is truly a representative film of this country which has been at the forefront of worldwide groundbreaking cinema for the past 5 years now. If you do not know South Korean cinema today, it's as if you did not know yet about French cinema's New Wave in 1965. You cannot call yourself a movie afficionado. See the list of my favorite Korean films here.
- Laurent Hasson