Dir: Na Hong-Jin.South Korea. 2008. 123mins.

Already a major hit inKoreaand set for a remake with Warner Bros, this bloody, frenetic serial killer thriller should keep themidnightscreening crowd happy, especially inAsia. Na Hong-jin’s promising but over-long debut is reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s highly-regarded Memories Of Murder and may possibly achieve similar returns. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with plenty of action and wild chases which propel it towards a predictably gory climax.

This is an easily trimmable but highly skillful display by a 34-year-old director, whose handling of his actors and camera is far superior to the quality of his script.

Unlike most such films, the identity of the serial killer is revealed early on. The story starts as most of his victims are already dead, and focuses on the bumbling police force which has failed to present a case against him despite having a confession in hand. When they are forced to let him go, former cop-turned-pimp Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-suk) becomes unwittingly involved when he mistakes the villain for a rival and realises the last victim may still be alive.

But motivations aren’t a strong point here. Morality is a dubious issue too: the ‘hero’ lives off women, the heroine is a prostitute, and the villain splits his victims’ heads open with a chisel, hangs their bodies on hooks and slices their Achilles tendons to drain off their blood.

A police shrink believes that the suspect, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) is impotent and the chisel is a substitute penis. A prostitute confirms this theory when she reveals that he bought her services but couldn’t conclude the transaction. There are a few religious hints and a lot of crucifixes on display, but this angle isn’t seriously explored. As for Jung-ho, a couple of remarks suggest he wasn’t the only cop at the station pimping on the side, but he was one of the few who were caught.

The story combines furious chases up and down deserted Seoul streets, physical punishments that only characters in Korean horror films seem able to survive, and a couple of sadistic, bloody sequences. Mostly shot at night, often in the rain, the visuals produced by cinematographer Lee Sung-je and lighting director Lee Chol-o are never less than impressive and often more eloquent than the spoken word. The images are expertly cut to enhance the dynamic feeling of the action. It’s a pity that that the script was not subjected to the same rigorous treatment for a shorter and more effective result.

Kim Yoon-suk is suitably despondent as the crooked detective discovering that even he has something of a conscience while Ha Jung-woo, as the murderer, looks bemused by the acts he is perpetrating but determined to keep doing them for as long as the script allows.

Production companies
Bidangil Pictures

International sales
(82) 2 3443 2150

Kim Su-jin
Yoon In-beom

Hong Won-chan
Lee Shin-ho
Na Hong-Jin

Lee Sung-je

Production design
Lee Min-bog

Kim Sun-min

Main cast
Kim Yoon-suk
Ha Jung-woo
Seo Yeong-hee
Jung In-ji