Joining the crowded list of movies about husbands accused of murdering their wives, from The Fugitive to Gone Girl, is a stylish South Korean thriller titled with essential, non-committal cool, Killed My Wife (Anaereul Jukyessda). But did he really? Even the hero can’t remember. First-time director Kim Ha-ra makes a smooth transition from helming commercials to creating genre characters who have a socially realistic ring, despite the stereotyped circumstances in which they find themselves and despite the story originating in a webcomic by Hee Na-ri. The pic’s bow in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Asian Future section should give it a chance to find audiences on the fest circuit and get Kim up and running behind the camera.
The film opens on a man and a woman entangled in a dark bedroom, where it’s impossible to make out anything before he stabs her. The next morning, Chae Jung-ho (Lee Si-eon) wakes up with a monster hangover and someone banging on the door. He’s surprised to see a police officer, Lt. Choi (Ahn Nae-sang, familiar from Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis and Poetry), who has come to question him. Choi blurts out that Jung-ho’s wife is dead but reassures him that he’s just stopped by because it’s police procedure to talk to family members. As it happens, Jung-ho and his wife are separated and the cop appears to have no suspicion that he’s the murderer — until he notices all the blood on his hands and clothes.
Those red stains come as a surprise to Jung-ho, too. He doesn’t remember a thing about the previous night or how the blood got there. Played by popular TV actor Lee as a weak-willed and not overly bright guy who’s hooked on booze and slot machines, Jung-ho goes around in a painful daze for most of the film trying to fill in the blanks in his memory. After getting out of Lt. Choi’s clutches, he turns into the classic fugitive, staying just a few steps ahead of the law and a prison cell while he searches for the truth.
Followed down the street by a pounding music track, Jung-ho locates his best friend and learns they had a late night together drinking in a bar. A pretty barmaid gives him more details about how he got into a fight to defend her. Little by little, he gets closer to finding out who killed his wife, whom he had hoped to get back together with once he straightened out his financial problems.
Taking Killed My Wife‘s plot up a notch from pure genre fare is its serious subtext of economic want in Korean society. “The economy is bad,” sighs one character. Even the breezy Lt. Choi, whose shaggy gray hair and professional approach make him more likable and trustworthy than the chilly Jung-ho, takes a special interest in a suitcase full of money that suddenly turns up, which could solve his personal financial crisis.
Jung-ho is bitterly convinced that “love needs money,” an idea he uses to justify his depressing gambling habit. Money, he believes, is the reason his wife (the gentle Wang Ji-hye) threw him out of the house. When Jung-ho lost his white collar job, he didn’t have the courage to tell her he had been fired and was scrounging for work as day laborer. Little did he guess what job she was forced to find to survive, and even when he does find out, it doesn’t seem to make much of an impression.
Only a bunch of gangsters running a gambling and massage business are raking it in. Our hero has borrowed money from the evil Mrs. Kim (Seo Ji-young), a sneering boss lady who threatens to cut off his hand Kim Ki-duk style if he doesn’t pay up. Her sadistic gloating seems more at home in a comic strip than a film, but the bitter final reveal about her — again, satisfyingly realistic — comes like an unexpected slap in the face of genre conventions.
Production company: Dante Media La
Cast: Lee Si-eon, Wang Ji-hye, Ahn Nae-sang, Seo Ji-young, Kim Ki-doo, Lee Sung-woo, Kim Hong-pyo
Director-screenwriter: Kim Ha-ra, based on a webcomic by Hee Na-ri
Producer: Kim Kyung-ah
Executive producers: Kim Sung-soo, Choi Myung-gil, Kim Ha-ra
Director of photography: Oh Seong-min
Production designer: Kwon Min-hee
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Asian Future)
World sales: Studio Bonanza