How many people would you kill to save a loved one? How many people would you kill to save a loved one who is already dead?
The movie begins rather abruptly with the camera shaking and zooming out until it focuses on a woman. They have arrived at…some part of Seoul…to film something. The Japanese cameraman expresses apprehension about this project, even more than he had before. They didn’t even tell the police about this. Now would be their last chance to quit. The woman claims that she will be alright; that she can do this. Can the cameraman do this? What are they doing anyways? Whatever it is, the cameraman relents and says that they are rolling.
Reporter Kim Soyeon claims that she was contacted yesterday by a man named Park Sangjoon. It was reported that Sangjoon had broken out of a psychiatric institute and killed eighteen people. She admits that the two of them had been childhood friends. She remembers him as a kind boy who became mentally unstable after a tragedy at age ten. They had not been in contact since then until he found her publisher. She then plays a recording of her phone conversation with Sangjoon where he asks her to do an exclusive on him. He says that he wants it to be a complete secret; only she and a Japanese cameraman should be involved. He also wants the entire thing to be filmed in a single take…uh…okay. There is probably more to the call, but that was the gist of it.
This is a found-footage flick, isn’t it?
Soyeon and the cameraman have been waiting at the assigned spot for 30 minutes, so Sangjoon should be calling soon. And like clockwork, he calls. Over the phone, he directs her and the cameraman to a nearby apartment. He sounds very…nervous, while Soyeon tries to stay calm and casual, asking him if he has been staying warm and offering him a handwarmer. They talk about their having played around as kids with Yoojin. Who is Yoojin? Anyways, once Soyeon and the cameraman reach the apartment, Sangjoon tells them to go up to the fifth floor and then he hangs up.
Is this apartment abandoned? The whole neighborhood looks abandoned. Perhaps that is why Sangjoon chose this place. Soyeon and the cameraman walk past a pile of trash bags, up the stairs. And up more stairs. Soyeon says that Sangjoon sounds the same and doesn’t believe that he would harm them. The cameraman is not so sure about that. The two get to apartment 502 and Soyeon knocks on the door…even though it is padlocked from the outside OH JESUS!
Kick him down the stairs. Kick…or don’t, I guess. Well, they had agreed to this. Sangjoon hands Soyeon the keys and orders her to unlock the door. Couldn’t he have done that himself beforehand? Regardless, she does so. Sangjoon has Soyeon and…his name is Tashiro. Sangjoon has Soyeon and Tashiro go to the middle of the…living room as he locks the door. He then orders Soyeon to sit in a chair and hand over her phone. Tashiro has to hand over his phone as well. He tells Tashiro to keep filming; threatening to kill him if he stops.
Oh, right, the hand warmers. Soyeon hands Sangjoon some handwarmers, though she has to take them back to open them as he does not know how to use them. She gives them back to him and he thanks her. He also calls her a good person. She asks if he is also a good person.
With Sangjoon’s permission, Soyeon takes out her notebook where she had written down some questions. Question 1: Why did he need a Japanese person? He will explain later. Okay…Question 2: Did he really kill eighteen people? No. He killed twenty-five. Jesus…Question 3: TWENTY-FIVE?? Question 4: What happened? He says that he had thrown them in the Han River and perhaps the bodies simply have not come up yet. Question 5: Why would he kill twenty-five people? Sangjoon takes out a magazine and shows S+T an article about a controversial factory that was closing. He was very impressed by the reporting, and even moreso when he realized that the writer was Soyeon. Surely, she would listen to him, right?
Sangjoon insists that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he has no choice. He turns on the television and plays a video recording that he made of Soyeon and their friend Yoojin, back when they were kids. They are playing around when a car turns the corner and doesn’t even slow down as it hits Yoojin. Sangjoon stops the tape and says that he hid the video in the “secret base” in the playground where they used to play. It was still there when he went there a few days ago. Soyeon notes that he has still not answered the question.
Sangjoon then says that he has been hearing the voice from God ever since he hid that tape. Soyeon says that her parents had told her that he had become unstable and had gotten hospitalized for crying out over and over that he had to do something for Yoonjin. Sangjoon says that that was God’s voice. God told him loudly and repeatedly that Yoonjin would come back to life if he were to kill twenty-seven people when turned twenty-seven. So, when he turned twenty-seven, he ran away from the hospital. After that, God’s messages became more and more descriptive, telling him who to kill and how. HE even told Sangjoon to hide out in this apartment.
Soyeon tells him that the voice of God was all in his head and Sangjoon…takes that badly. He keeps talking about the voice, not really making an especially convincing case for himself. Soyeon tells him that killing all of these people will not bring Yoonjin back. He yells that it will. How? He doesn’t know. Only God knows. Soyeon realizes that Sangjoon needs to kill two more people to complete this whole thing…are Soyeon and Tashiro those two people? Sangjoon insists that that is not the case.
Sangjoon then mentions the classic American movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Oh my God. Neither Soyeon nor Tashiro has seen it, but the hospital showed it on Christmas. It touched him so much that he decided to film the moment where he brings Yoonjin back to life, so that everyone will see what he did and see the truth. Wait, so this documentary interview thing is his idea and not God’s? But, more importantly, Soyeon notes that he is going to document two murders. And is it really worth it to kill twenty-seven people to bring back one? Well, God told Sangjoon that all of those people will come back to life when all is done.
Sangjoon claims that God kept showing him miracles after he left the hospital. Soyeon demands to see them. Oh, right. Something tangible would be nice after fifteen minutes of nothing. Sangjoon says that he needs to…gain the power of love from the last two people before he kills them. That is not what Soyeon asked for, Jesus Christ. Sangjoon then says that he made a mistake, kidnapping a couple who seemed to be in love, but were not. He hurt them to see if they were in love, but they tried to save only themselves. He didn’t kill them; he is just waiting for God’s instructions. In fact, here they are in another room.
So, Soyeon asked for a miracle. Sangjoon says that, while they were not the couple to kill, the man had been carrying the magazine with Soyeon’s article. And it was the article itself that showed him what to do. He does some rudimentary (and perhaps selective) codebreaking to show that his target is a Japanese couple. That it will happen on the 19th at 15 hours, 40 minutes, and 32 seconds…at this apartment unit. The apartment where he had already been hiding out. Spots on neck. Kill them. Well…that is…the apartment thing is…but look at all of those lines that he skipped. Anyways, that is why he needed a Japanese cameraman; he needed to know what the Japanese couple were saying. Wait…Soyeon speaks Japanese; that wasn’t enough? And why would anyone come here? Well, 3:40 is approaching, so I guess that we will find out.
Suddenly, Soyeon’s publisher calls. Sangjoon tells her to put the call on speakerphone, saying that God’s message will be on the call. So, Soyeon answers the phone and…the reception is bad, so the voice goes in and out. But it does sound like Soyeon’s publisher is saying to kill the two people. Is…that a miracle?
So, Sangjoon is going to kill those two people. Whether Soyeon actually heard that over the phone or not, she cannot let that happen, and insists that it was just a coincidence. I don’t know; the magazine article was a bit of a stretch, but this was less so. Sangjoon orders her to go to a far part of the room so that he can ziptie her hands. When she is slow to cooperate, he uh…stabs her in the arm.
Sangjoon ties up Soyeon and…this could maybe be an opportunity for Tashiro to attack, as Sangjoon was holding the knife in his armpit. But I guess that Tashiro is too terrified at this moment. Soyeon even yells at him to stop Sangjoon, but Tashiro meekly follows Sangjoon back to the two people in the other room and apologetically suffocates them. Wait, why doesn’t he just stab them if he says that there isn’t much time? Maybe God told him that he needs to kill them that way?
Sangjoon unlocks the door and grabs a baseball bat. He says that the Japanese couple will be on their way in a few minutes. He tells Soyeon to stay put and tells Tashiro to hide in a closet until Sangjoon gives him a sign. Then Tashiro is to say something to them. Sangjoon doesn’t care what he says. So…he could yell at them to run away, right? Right? It doesn’t matter anyways, since there is not Japanese couple, because all of this…oh…wait…there are people coming up the stairs.
Sangjoon turns out the lights. A man is saying in Japanese that the view at the top floor will be amazing. I suppose that that is one reason to be in this desolate part of the city, but I am sure that there are other places with comparable views and fewer trash bags out front. The woman is less excited and more hungry, but the man insists. He notices the open door and…so instead of going up to the top of the building, they enter the apartment unit.
And…well, here is where the movie gets a little weird.
This is a co-production between Japan and South Korean. But, like AV Idol, it seems to have a more Japanese vibe, perhaps due to having a Japanese director. Shiraishi Kōji had been known for kind of low-budget gritty horror movies, sometimes employing the found footage conceit. A Record of Sweet Murder was the last movie that he made before directing…erm…Sadako vs. Kayako…well, I am probably not featuring that one. I am not entirely sure what made him set this film in South Korea…other than he could. But I guess that there is a theme of communication, of people being unable to understand each other…oh, hey, kind of like Yi Yi.
This is a long-take found-footage flick that takes place largely in a dingy apartment. It is a bit of a smirkingly clever meta conceit to have the conceit built into the movie. I cannot say if the movie was filmed in a single long-take, but it is meant to appear that way because the character wants it that way. Sangjoon demanded it, not because it was part of God’s instructions, but because Sangjoon wanted his truth on record and without editing. And, of course, it is just a means for the director to show off without having to indulge in huge stylistic flourishes. And who is the one put in charge of filming this in one take? Director Shiraishi himself as Japanese cameraman Tashiro. But it is not him demanding this of his actors, but the actor demanding that of him. Weird meta.
This movie…is a bit rough. Its presentation of mental illness and trauma may be rather insensitive. Sangjoon hears voices; they are inescapable and overwhelming. It is tempting to sympathize with his pain and anguish. He is a victim. But we don’t see him being victimized. Instead, the movie depicts him as dangerous and deadly. Of course, he does not want to kill anyone, but he will, he has, and he does. His illness makes him dangerous to the other main characters.
The early back and forth of Soyeon asking for evidence of miracles and Sangjoon just repeating vague nonsense can get frustrating. Einstein’s definition of insanity. While possibly realistic (I have no idea), the lack of forward momentum in those conversations can bring the narrative to a crawl. And this is not a long movie. That wheel-spinning may make the reveal of the hidden message in the magazine feel like a revelation, as dubious as it may actually be. The viewer may start to wonder…hmmm…is there more truth to what Sangjoon says?
And then there is the character of Tashiro. Sangjoon wanted Soyeon to bring a Japanese cameraman to translate for the Japanese couple, ignoring that Soyeon herself can speak Japanese. He is also a bit odd, at least in terms of his non-decisions. He is holding a big camera. He could just wait until Sangjoon’s back is turned and bash him in the head. Is he too cowardly to do so? Is he too professional to undermine this project after passing the point of no return at the beginning? Or is he more taken by Sangjoon’s message?
These niggling questions and criticisms get thrown out the window when the Japanese couple arrive…not because they get addressed afterwards, but because the tone of the movie turns the viewer ever-so-slightly away from those lines of thinking. Now, I have seen some critics who…erm…criticize this part of the movie, singling out one half of the Japanese couple as overacting. And I will admit that this couple seem like they are from a completely different movie, at least at first. They shake the foundations of how I viewed this movie. At first, I thought that this was a no-budget experimental thriller and character drama; a flawed, but passionate barebones anti-meditation on grief, the faith, and mental illness. Then the Japanese couple arrived and I saw the movie in a different light. This movie is gleeful trash. All those questions that I had? All of the things that I considered flaws? Don’t care about them anymore.
This movie is tasteless trash. Gleeful garbage.
And I love it.
I don’t want to spoil too much beyond my synopsis, but I will say that the Japanese couple really give the movie a different flavor. Some critics disliked that, but not me. Yes, it took the movie in…even more distasteful directions than before, but it could not have gone there using the same tone as before. There is a somewhat unfortunate side-effect that Soyeon kind of gets sidelined for a while, but she eventually returns with a vengeance. Yet, that return would not have the same impact with the same tone from as before. Was this change deliberate? Is it really a change or is this another case of me watching a movie incorrectly? I don’t know. I don’t particularly care.
This movie is an…experience. Just know that you are going to get some…stuff. If you are ready for some…stuff, then you might enjoy it quite a bit.
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