When people ask me for recommendations on thrillers, I generally point them to what’s available in the South Korean market. A good go-to for me is Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder. Whether conducted in a long-form drama format or straight to cinema, it’s difficult to find a bad South Korean serial killer film that won’t make you lock your doors at night. The latest addition to the genre from Writer/Director Kwon Oh-seung titled MIDNIGHT (미드나이트) proves to be a strong contender in the genre. The debut feature from the director will leave you on the edge of your seat. It will keep you guessing all the way until the very end, with an ending that is sure to satisfy many.
In the world of MIDNIGHT (미드나이트), a series of murders have a city on edge. But daily life can’t be put on hold and, with no definitive leads, life moves onward for the city’s citizens. After a longer-than-expected business meeting, the deaf Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-Joo) heads off to meet her mother (Gil Hae-yeon), who is waiting for her as she parks the car before they head home. Meanwhile, a mysterious masked man is on the hunt for new victims, specifically targeting those who are distracted or in their own bubbles. Kyung-mi’s mother attracts his attention before he decides to follow a young woman, So-jung (Kim Hye-yoon), instead. Unfortunately, fate hasn’t yet decided to spare Kyung-mi or her mother from this man’s sight.
When Kyung-mi arrives at her meeting place, the now bloodied So-jung attracts her attention. But, due to her deafness, she can’t provide much aid. This means nothing, however, to the murderer who is lurking nearby. The murder, Do-sik (Wi Ha-joon), has now decided that Kyung-mi will be his next victim. With quick thinking, Kyung-mi is able to escape with her mother, but Do-sik is hot on their tail. And, with the newly acquired knowledge of their deafness at his disposal, he eagerly waits until the moment is right to capture his prey once more.
Writer/Director Kwon Oh-seung makes a brave decision to reveal the identity of the killer early on. The decision pays off, though, given the strength of the story as it unfolds. Much like the game of cat and mouse playing out onscreen, cluing the viewers in early on brings them into the game as well. We are taken on the same ride as Kyung-mi, the adrenalin taking hold as all we can do is watch in horror to see the outcome. This decision combined with infusing the script with the social and systemic barriers Kyung-mi and her mother has to deal with and navigate around makes the overall film that much stronger. One particular moment that stands out is when Kyung-mi tries to seek out help in a crowd. Oh-seung relies on the social stigma of Kyung-mi’s disability to isolate her and show the audience how a crowd is less safe than when she is on her own.
While the story itself is strong, the performances featured in the film help pull everything together. Jin Ki-joo’s Kyung-mi is fleshed out. While she’s at a great disadvantage with her deafness, she has learned to navigate a society that hasn’t caught up with her (Korean Sign Language wasn’t officially recognized until 2015 as a general note). While Jin is not a deaf actress, which some viewers might pick up on based on acting decisions, her performance is strong, compelling, and will draw the viewer in. Gil Hae-yeon’s performance as Kyung-mi’s mother deserves recognition. There are subtle moments as the plot plays out, where we get glimpses of Kyung-mi’s mother’s experience as an older woman. Especially so when Hae-yeon is paired with Wi Ha-joon’s Do-sik. Speaking of Wi Ha-joon, his portrayal of Do-sik is spine-chilling. A man who spots weakness and exploits it to the fullest extent for his own pleasure, Wi Ha-joon massages the utmost terror out of his role.
I do want to put a spotlight on how the action is structured in this film because it is a lesson in tension build-up. Whether running through the hilly streets, navigating tight spaces inside a parking structure, these moments ramp up the adrenalin in a viewer. One major element that helps in this is the usage of lighting as well as camera angles. Shooting through a door inside a parking structure amplifies the tightness of the space needed to crawl through. Quick shots between Do-sik running and Kyung-mi trying to open a door will make the heart race. While seemingly small, these touches and edits help do the hard work. Throw in the sound design, alternating between the soundless perspective of Kyung-mi to the overbearing sound-driven world of everyone else, it really helps force the audience to hyperfocus in a way that ends up amplifying the moments of surprise. Great job!
For those viewers who are expecting this to be a film with a high body count, think again. While there’s much tension built, the failure of Do-sik as a character is that he’s a single-minded type of killer. Having narcissistic and sociopathic qualities, Kwung-mi’s continuous thwarting of his attempts to capture her facilitates his hyperfocus on her and her alone. And, in the case of this film, this also means that anyone that gets in his way is meant to just be batted away. Depending on the individual viewer, this may be a deterrent. The way the screenplay plays out combined with the sound editing, performances, and how things were structured, it’s less noticeable of a flaw. A cat and mouse game without any needless distractions.
Overall, MIDNIGHT (미드나이트) is a strong feature debut outing for Kwon Oh-seung. The tension-build delivered through the story, the performances, and below-the-line elements like the score, sound design, and camerawork all come together to create a fulfilling thriller. Jin Ki-joo delivers a compelling performance as Kyung-mi and is guaranteed to break the hearts of viewers, especially once they reach her big monologue. Wi Ha-joon’s performance is chilling; his character highlights how easy it is to exploit the system and knows exactly what they can get away with. Seriously, once this film hits stateside, I highly recommend it for viewing.
MIDNIGHT (미드나이트) had its Canadian Premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
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