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Korean cinema doesn’t usually mince story points, even when they involve the unspeakable things adults do to an innocent little boy, and writer-director Kim Seung-woo’s missing child thriller, Bring Me Home (Na-reul cha-ja-jwo), is not for the faint-hearted. Shot in stark contrasts and laced with sudden, jarring plot turns, this feature debut abounds in psychological horror, even if most of the physical violence is saved for the end. Starring a wonderfully unstoppable Lee Young-ae in her first big-screen role since Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), the Finecut release should have a good shot at compatible theatrical markets after its premiere in Toronto’s Discovery section.
The film’s strong point is the cold-eyed, implacable determination of a mother to find her son, a motivation in no way diminished six years after he went missing from a playground. At the time Yoon-su was kidnapped, Jung-yeon (Lee) was a normal stressed mom who sometimes wished she could have time off from mothering. A week, perhaps… But from the moment her son was snatched, she has lived to get him back, and lived with a sense of guilt.
Every day, Jung-yeon and her husband, who shares her determination, stick up missing-boy posters and track down tenuous leads. Jung-yeon is tied down by her job in a hospital (her intimate knowledge of dangerous drugs will come in handy later), but her husband spends his time driving around the country, when he’s not hanging out in the local missing-persons bureau. A prank email ends his search early in the film in an appalling accident.
Meanwhile, in a sunny fishing village on the coast, a local family co-op of criminals and ex-cons runs a fishing business for tourists. Two young boys whose origins are unclear labor for them like slaves. The older child, who is called Min-su, is the victim of sadism and beatings by his thuggish master. What else the man does to him is made pretty explicit in some hard-to-watch scenes in a shack, where Min-su is chained and abused.
Almost as sickening is a hunting scene where a badass cop in sunglasses, Sgt. Hong (played by charismatic veteran actor Yoo Jae-myung), takes the boys along to carry the carcass of a fawn he wantonly kills, along with its grieving mother. In a second of revelation, Min-su sees himself in the dead, bleeding fawn, and it’s pure torture for him to carry the poor thing around his neck.
The anguish of seeing the boys brutalized is made much worse by the law ignoring them and, indeed, the general indifference to their plight. Hong and his assistant, both in the pay of the crooks, stay for lunch, and the younger cop remarks on the uncanny resemblance between Min-su and the face of a missing boy on a poster. A deathly silence meets this observation, and Hong insults him and warns him to drop it.
But the poster promises a large reward and soon Jung-yeon is alerted. She drives up to the fishing dock with the blitheness of Janet Leigh pulling up to the Bates Motel. Her demand to see Min-su creates turmoil in the family, who first try to hide the boys and send her away. But that night, as a wild storm breaks over the coastline in giant waves, she returns. Her only weapon: a hypodermic needle.
While the film’s final scenes make for some very classy terror, there’s a sense that director Kim Seung-woo is finding his footing in some of the contrived staging and simplistic narrative connections. For example, Jung-yeon, who is no fool, could be less stupid about walking into danger. Another annoyance that could be corrected in the editing is the way the conclusion, with its precious information about the past, races by too quickly, leaving needless uncertainty in the viewer’s mind.
Other scenes, like the watery confrontation between Jung-yeon and Min-su, make excellent use of the elements, which represent the characters’ emotions with terrifying force. Director of photography Lee Mo-gae (I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters) leaves some vivid imagery behind long after the story is over, and Kim Chang-ju’s editing never dawdles.
Production company: 26 Company
Cast: Lee Young-ae, Yoo Jae-myung
Director-screenwriter: Kim Seung-woo
Producer: Park Se-joon
Director of photography: Lee Mo-gae
Production designer: Cho Hwa-sung
Editor: Kim Chang-ju
Music: Lee Ji-soo
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
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