Deep Trap (aka Exchange) (Ham-jeong)
Korea (2015) Dir. Kwon Hyung-Jin
Fans of Korean genre films generally know what they are letting themselves in for, so, no matter how shocking the content is, we are in fact in familiar territory. Deep Trap is one of those films but in this instance, it is made all the more terrifying by reportedly being based on real life events.
Married couple Lee So-yeon (Kim Min-kyeong) and Kwon Joon-sik (Jo Han-seon) are in a bad place after a miscarriage, the trauma of which has made Joon-sik and turn to alcohol to ease his pain. At her wits end, So-yeon convinces her husband to visit to a nearby island in the hope the natural surroundings will help Joon-sik overcome his impotency.
They stop at a small remote restaurant run by Park Seong-cheol (Ma Dong-seok) and his mute assistant whom he bullies, Kim Min-hee (Ji An). The couple are fed with unusual food dishes Seong-cheol claims will restore Joon-sik’s potency but his behaviour is very off-putting for So-yeon. The next morning the car won’t start, forcing the couple to stay another day at the restaurant and at the whim of Seong-cheol.
Opening with the immediate aftermath of the miscarriage essentially reduces it to a functional springboard for the main story to take off from, sparing viewers looking for a good thriller the pain of sitting through a potentially maudlin melodrama. If there were another, less sensitive way to set up this tale, most people would have taken it but as we know, the “anything goes” maxim is a preserve of Asian cinema.
Kwon Hyung-Jin is not a director I am familiar with but a quick look at his rather brief resume shows he is noted more for emotional dramas than thrillers, with just one, 2008’s Truck, previously to his credit. For the first thirty plus minutes, this is a slow brooding affair with an air of unease that permeates through the screen once the action shifts from the bustling mainland to the bucolic serenity of the island.
Yet, just through the shifty glances and skin crawling grin can Seong-cheol make what is a convivial lunch seem like a prelude to terror. Warning signals arise when Seong-cheol offers Joon-sik the chance to pick the chicken that will end up in his famous soup. There is also a special brew that is served with the food that is purposely intoxicating as part of Seong-cheol’s treatment to help Joon-sik.
One the first night Seong-cheol tests the water with some karaoke and dancing pairing a relaxed Joon-sik with Min-hee while he partners an uncomfortable So-yeon. The next day as the men are hunting, Joon-sik gets a glimpse of what kind of cold-blooded chap Seong-cheol can be yet still doesn’t take the hint. Meanwhile So-yeon tries to bond with Min-hee but her being mute stifles the conversation somewhat.
Come the night and the food and booze is flowing again, this time ending with Min-hee seducing a festive Joon-sik, finally breaking his sexual drought, with both Min-hee’s and Seong-cheol’s consent. However, Seong-cheol accosts So-yeon and forces her to watch them whilst simultaneously raping her, presumably the “exchange” of the film’s original title.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing that such gullible characters exist in Asian cinema where western counterparts would be more cynical and reserved in staying too long with someone who is clearly unhinged, even if we only get a whiff of it. The script does reveal why they couple stick it out but even then, alarm bells ideally and perhaps realistically should have rung sooner.
Then there is the always uncomfortable misogyny of the patriarchal Korean society that effectively appears to excuse the men who stand around while a woman is being bullied. Not all Asian men claim their women to be “property” but Seong-cheol’s constant reminder of “how good” he has been to Min-hee (also revealed later on) as he beats her is typical of this bizarre sense of privilege related to this mentality.
Gore fans are rewarded in the final thirty minutes where the thriller aspect hits full throttle as Seong-cheol decides the greenery could do with splashes of red to brighten it up. Much of the violence occurs off screen but enough is shown for our imaginations to determine the levels of gruesome it attains. There is little finesse in the brutality with all manner of household objects used as weapons, but Seong-cheol is hardly subtle either.
Kwon is able to create some well timed near-miss tension spots during the attempted escape scenes and toys with our expectations whenever things seem to be swinging in favour of the fleeing victims. As a genre film, the narrative doesn’t stray too far from the usual expectations but this isn’t entirely predictable either – just don’t expect a moralistic denouement or psychological breakdown to explain Seong-cheol’s actions.
For those like their thrillers all action, the meandering pace of the beginning is actually put to good use, fleshing out the characters beyond being a one-dimensional psychopath and his victims. The miscarriage storyline provides an emotional foundation for Joon-sik and So-yeon and explain their vulnerability, also giving Seong-cheol an inroad for easy manipulation.
It is to the credit of the cast that the characters engage the audience, with all four leads turning in top notch, nuanced performances this genre rarely demands. Jo Han-seon isn’t afraid to expose Joon-sik as the emotionally weak one in the marriage, complimented by Kim Min-kyeong’s uxorial So-yeon trying to hold it together whilst hurting inside herself. Ma Dong-seok is perfectly cast as the brutish antagonist, but it is the bewitching Ji An who greatly impresses in the challenging role of the mute Min-hee.
Typically unpleasant, excessively violent and morally questionable, Kwon ensures Deep Trap offers everything this genre’s reputation is built on to justify our attention, with a few little touches and stellar performances from the cast to lift it above its conventional formula. Doesn’t break much new ground but bloodies the existing one nicely.