I had heard many positive mentions of this, and after liking the director, Joon-ho Bong's, most recent film, Mother, as well as his much-admired monster movie The Host, it finally made it to the top of my list. Like those others, it has an excellent interplay of characters, a lot of humor mixed in with its morbidity, and numerous excellent moments of energizing excitement. This is based on a true story of the famous unsolved case, and in order to avoid a sense of disappointment at the end, I would keep that very thing in mind: UNSOLVED case.
We open in 1986 with the body of a woman stuffed into a drainage pipe. The excellent, creepy images start right away as we see a bunch of tiny ants moving over the woman's body, retreating from the glare of the flashlight. We introduce Kang-ho Song as Doo-Man Park, chunky local police detective. Soon they find another body, and there are crowds of reporters wandering all over the scene, people messing with the body, and farm tractors driving right through the crime scene, all destroying evidence. It soon becomes apparent to the most casual viewer of CSI that these people have no idea how to handle a case like this. Soon Park settles that the killer MUST be the local mentally-disabled kid, and he and his cohort beat and coach the kid into a confession. They all settle in excitedly to watch a TV action show about a badass cop.
Soon detective Tae-Yeon Suh arrives from Seoul to work on the case. He doesn't win friends by not immediately believing Park's delusions about himself. He can see immediately that the disabled kid cannot be the killer, because his webbed hands would prevent him from tying the knots found on the victim. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop Park and company from staging a huge publicity event complete with group photo for catching the killer. One of the local cops is griping about Suh and how he went to a four-year college in Seoul, and says "Four-year college, shit--I spent four years in ninth grade!" By now they've deduced that the women are always killed on nights when it rains. Then we have a sequence in which a woman is stalked and killed, and it is quite creepy and scary!
Then Park, who is clearly feeling shown up by Suh, deduces that since they found no public hairs of the killer, the killer must be a man with no public hair! Meanwhile he dismisses the thoughts of a woman who realizes that an obscure love song is requested and played on the radio on the nights when women are killed. We then have a few scenes of Park hanging out in gyms, looking for guys with no public hair, while the rest of the cops are out doing serious work. Soon Park is taking the advice of his girlfriend and going to see a psychic for clues about who the killer might be.
SPOILERS > > >
Then there's a great scene in which Park and friend go out to one of the sites where a body was found to do some sort of ludicrous exercise decreed by the psychic, when they hear someone coming and hide. It's Suh, who has come to check it the scene. Then he hears someone coming and hides on the other side. Then someone comes, lays women's lingerie on the ground and starts masturbating over it--and you realize that's the killer! Then follows a big and exciting chase, a capture, and a surprising development of the character dynamic among the cops.
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That's all I'll tell you, because there are lots of interesting reversals and surprises and suddenly thrilling moments, all handled with panache. As it goes on, as seems to be a recurring element in Bong films, the film reveals more than its fair share of third-act developments, sending things off in different intriguing directions just as it seems things should be wrapping up. Which, however, can have the side effect of making Bong films seem unusually long.
So as I said, one needs to avoid disappointment by keeping in mind that this case was never solved. As the film winds down, the focus shifts away from finding the killer to the cops' obsession with it, and the slow unhinging of buttoned-up detective Suh. After a while one begins to suspect that this movie was quite influential--if not the entire catalyst for--David Fincher's Zodiac, which is also about an unsolved case, and in which the clues don't add up, and eventually the focus shifts to how the detectives deal with not knowing, and never knowing. I would be willing to bet that Zodiac is, in a way, Fincher's attempt to remake this movie without outright remaking it. This film ends by flashing forward a few years, where we find Park now married and settled into a different line of business. The last moment seems to find him balanced at a decision point between re-entering the obsession over finding the killer and just giving up, moving on and realizing he'll never know.
Well, it was genius. It has excellent character dynamics that all seem realistic and interplay in a complex way that makes the film fascinating. Park is a buffoon, but he remains sympathetic, and one never feels the film is unfair to him or mocking cops in general, as one often does with other films. But then, when most films would stop, this one continues to develop his character and add even more shades and moods. It is that way with all the characters. Then there are quite a few expertly-handled scenes in which the energy suddenly jumps up--such as when the detectives are arguing, when suddenly they hear the song on the radio, and notice that it's raining--and these are executed with such precision and panache that you just have to admire the director's skill and style. Then the movie is able to sustain this high level, and keep adding twists and elements, and move into the tricky final section where the focus moves away from solving the case and onto the detectives themselves. Ultimately the rare movie that stays one step ahead of you, teasing you along and feeding your mind, letting you know you're in the hands of an expert. Follow him.
Yes, it's brilliant. Just remember: unsolved case.