Korea (2021) Dir. Kwon Oh-Seung
Navigating life when you are deaf is not easy, arguably just pipped by blindness in the difficulty stakes but with its own set of problems. What they both have in common is many unpleasant people will take advantage of this impairment, either for their own amusement, or for something truly pernicious.
Kim Kyeong-mi (Jin Ki-joo) is a young deaf woman working for the sign language end of a customer care call centre, catering for their deaf customers. After a late night with her boss and some clients at a restaurant, Kyeong-mi picks up her also deaf mother (Gil Hae-yeon) but after parking her car, Kyeong-mi interrupts an attack on teenager Jung-eun (Kim Hye-yoon) by serial killer Do-shik (Wi Ha-joon).
A masked Do-shik tries to catch Kyeong-mi to no avail as she makes it to a public alarm button. As the police arrive, Do-Shik now wearing a suit and pretending to be someone else shows up to intimidate Kyeong-mi and her mother, having hidden Jung-eun in his van, establishing Kyeong-mi as his next target. Meanwhile, Jung-eun’s over protective security guard brother Jong-Tak (Park Hoon) is searching for his sister.
I’m sure there is a section of the film going universe that might be a bit fatigued by the never-ending run of grisly serial killer films from Korea, and let’s face it, this does appear to be their “go to” genre. But they do them so damn well and mange to come up with the occasional new twist to apply to them that it is hard to ignore the latest effort when it pokes its blood stained head round the door.
Midnight is the debut from Kwon Oh-Seung, and judging by the evidence presented here, he is as much a student of this genre as he is a fan. The traces of other films in its DNA, The Chaser being the most prominent, might make this seem generic in places, but Kwon is smart enough to realise where he can shift the usual thrills from to create his own tale of suspense and discomfort.
The theme which is subtly played out beneath the unbridled violence explores judging people and things by their appearance. Kwon cleverly uses many different scenarios to apply this to the cast. Kyeong-mi is a prime example. Instead of being helpless through her deafness, she is in fact highly perky and amiable, with a bit of a sharp edge when needed, as we learn in her first scene flipping off a rude customer over the video chat.
She also knows how to use her impairment to put other’s in their place. When her bosses at the Care for You call centre try to get all the reluctant young hotties on staff to attend a dinner with clients, they ignore Kyeong-mi. So, she volunteers herself, on the grounds she knows her bosses wouldn’t discriminate against her. Of course, at the dinner, sleazy men make lurid remakes about the cute deaf girl who they forget can lip red, and she fires back with graphic details of her violent revenge via sign language.
Do-shik may a psychopath but he is also a smart one, showing up at the crime scene in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase (full of knives) looking to find his missing sister. Yes, it is obvious to the audience but not to Kyeong-mi and her mother and Kwon milks this for all it is worth, driving the audience up the wall in frustration at every turn – we’re talking the full “he’s behind you” pantomime deal here.
Because of Do-shik’s respectable appearance, the dumb police officers (a genre staple that will never change) are sucked in by his credibility, while he surreptitiously threatens Kyeong-mi’s mother behind their backs. As a drunkard distracts the bumbling rozzers, Do-shik attacks Jong-Tak who has arrived looking for Jung-eun, yet the cops arrest Jong-Tak, the hot head in the tracksuit, not the real nutter in the smart attire.
Like it or not, this segment will have you itching to dive through the screen and give the cast a clue, demonstrating Kwon’s ability to create a suspenseful feeling within the audience, leaving them utterly hopeless to intervene. Since Do-shik isn’t finished with Kyeong-mi and finds out where she lives, Kwon is forced to adjust the aforementioned tact for when the poor girl is in grave danger in her own home, and further still when it inevitably spills out onto the streets of Seoul, for its shocking but clever finale.
Familiar plot beats do frequently arise but Kwon exploits them with a fresh purpose, interlocked with the central conceit of the main protagonists being deaf and unable to communicate openly with anyone except each other. The final act does a great job in imploring the hearing-abled to learn some sign language or at least be aware of when someone among them is deaf. This results in Kyeong-mi going to desperate measures to be heard.
Psychopaths are not known for their rationality, yet Kwon adds a touch of this to Do-Shik in the mind games he plays with Jong-Tak, giving him a choice to save Kyeong-mi or save his sister. He may be cold but he is logical even if that logic is twisted, and Kwon knows it will not only push our buttons, it makes for good drama too. However, whilst this makes Do-Shik charismatically dangerous, a lack of motive leaves him a shallow antagonist, despite a compelling turn from Wi Ha-joon.
Jin Ki-joo may not be deaf but she is convincing as Kyeong-mi, the impactful emoting through her tortured facial expressions and panicked sign language ensures Kyeong-mi is a sympathetic protagonist, along with her adorable babyface looks. Gil Hae-yeon is also superb as Kyeong-mi’s mother, following suit with a similarly expressive, physical performance.
Midnight may follow a well-trodden path of serial killer conventions yet scores highly on the tension stakes courtesy of the impaired protagonists. This fast paced, tightly wound debut shows great promise from Kwon.