'The 12th Suspect': Film Review | Filmart 2019
Veteran actors Heo Sung-tae and Kim Sang-kyung headline director Ko Myoung-sung’s feature debut.
A routine murder investigation takes a detour into an examination of guilt, ideology, opportunism and whether or not there are lines that should never be crossed, even when survival is at stake, in The 12th Suspect. A sepia-toned double-edged sword of a quasi-chamber piece, the film starts out as a positively Columbo-esque murder mystery before spiraling into a much graver contemplation of responsibility and accountability and the part each plays in Korea’s history and our global present. After making a Japanese documentary about its diaspora and a short pivoting on women being repatriated to North Korea, writer-director Ko Myoung-sung makes a mostly assured feature debut, one blessed with a relatively starry cast and polished (and theatrical) production values. The subject matter should get the film some attention at home and possibly around the region, but it’s likely to fly under the mainstream radar overseas without support from creative distributors. A decent run through the festival circuit is probably in The 12th Suspect’s future, though its intimate vibe would work well on streaming platforms.
It is the fall of 1953 and the Korean War has just ended. Seoul’s streets are still littered with displaced, battle-weary survivors and the Myung-dong district’s dirt roads house a few modest businesses that withstood the conflict. One of these is the Oriental Teahouse, a haven for artists to enjoy some bad coffee. Like a good Agatha Christie mystery, the cafe slowly fills up with a group of loosely connected acquaintances who are all suspects in the murder of prominent, divisive poet, Baek Du-hwan (Nam Sung-jin) and his protege Yoo-jung (Han Ji-an) the night before. The suspects include the couple that runs the teahouse, Seok-won and his wife referred to only as Madam (Heo Sung-tae, The Age of Shadows, and Park Sun-young), broody, budding writer Jang-hyuk (Nam Yeon-woo), the quick-tempered Haeng-chul (Kim Ji-woon) and the nervous young newspaper artist In-seong (Kim Dong-young), an old friend of Yoo-jung’s. The Poirot to this motley crew is Kim Ki-chae (Memories of Murder’s Kim Sang-kyung), a smartly dressed detective who comes into the cafe sniffing around for information on the murder victim, also a regular there, and to size up the suspects.
For the first half, Ko meanders and dawdles through a distinctly stagey script, with furtive glances, awkward silences and tableaux aplenty, and Kim’s detective doing his very best “Just one more thing” as he pokes around looking for motives. He blunders and needles the characters, and follows his comments with disingenuous apologies for offense in the course of his investigation. It’s fairly amusing if somewhat aimless, and viewers trained in the art of misdirection — this is a mystery — will be expecting a twist or turn eventually. Ko delivers that at about the midway point, giving the film an I Can Speak structure, albeit less out of left field given the generally sinister atmosphere he manages to build in the early goings.
When the seemingly bumbling detective turns out to be a virulent anti-communist working for the Special Operations Unit things take a turn for the dire. Believing the deceased poet and Yoo-jung were communist sympathizers intent on destabilizing Korean society, his visit to the teahouse is actually a witch hunt; the teahouse regulars are guilty by association. Then it comes to light that Ki-chae himself has a personal agenda in the investigation as well, and the sticky ties that bind them all go back as far as an unsavory connection during World War II.
Ko has bitten off quite a bit with The 12th Suspect, and for the most part he manages to juggle the questions of how far anyone can be allowed to go to survive gruesome circumstances, when that survival instinct curdles into hypocrisy, revenge versus justice and the fine line between patriotism and nationalism among other thorny subjects. There are points where the story loses focus — particularly in a few cutaways that ironically stall the tension in the room almost all the action unfolds in — but Kim and Heo (whose Seok-won emerges as the primary antagonist to Ki-chae) do a lovely job of anchoring the philosophical rift at the heart of the story. Heo’s worn, tired expression bounces off Kim’s more animated, fiery one to dramatic effect. Kim’s frantic performance as Ki-chae could easily be read as teetering into over-the-top were it not for the far right frothing that regularly makes news headlines now. The film ends on a grim note in 1960, at the dawn of Korea’s autocratic dictator years, which started in the name of patriotism and protection as they so often do.
The filmmaking is technically adept on what was probably a modest budget, with cinematographer Park Jeong-chul’s soft, warm images providing a well-placed false sense of fuzzy nostalgia that jarringly blankets the ugly secrets that get revealed.
Production company: Jin Pictures
Cast: Kim Sang-kyung, Heo Sung-tae, Park Sun-young, Kim Dong-young, Jang Won-young, Jang Ji-soon, Kim Ji-hoon, Nam Yeon-woo, Kim Hee-sang, Na Do-yoon, Dong Bang-woo
Director: Ko Myoung-sung
Screenwriter: Ko Myoung-sung
Producer: Yun Min-young
Director of photography: Park Jeong-chul
Production designer: Song Tae-seon
Costume designer: Jeong Ru-bi
Editor: Kim Su-beom
Music: Gu Ja-won
World sales: Indiestory
No rating, 106 minutes