Film Review: The Terror Live

Ha Jung-woo stars in "The Terror Live" as an anchorman trapped in a vortex of power and terror.
A rage-fuelled blast against inept politicians, a corrupt establishment and a cynical media which flounders in the last act when the demands of an action-thriller await to be met.

South Korean director Kim Byung-woo’s first mainstream blockbuster chronicles a news anchorman’s struggle to contend, on live television, with the increasingly bloody acts perpetuated by a mysterious caller.

In the production notes for his full-length feature debut – the $15,000-budget indie film, Written, about a man whose brutal fate is determined by a voice he can't see – director Kim Byung-woo wrote of how he always has had the desire to ask his characters whether they “wanted to be written into the story or to write the story.” This line of thought prevails as the 33-year-old helmer moves into his first mainstream production. A thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a broadcasting studio, The Terror Live is a ceaselessly hectic piece about a newsman’s struggle to regain control in a battle of wits with not just a caller threatening to unleash total chaos in Seoul with bombs and destruction, but also the other players – bosses, detectives, government officials – who are all trying to make a puppet out of him.

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Opening in South Korea just a day before Bong Joon-ho’s CJ Entertainment-backed Snowpiercer, The Terror Live -- which is distributed by CJ’s rival Lotte Entertainment -- is by comparison a more conventional action thriller (think Phone Booth set in a TV studio, with smatterings of a brutal version of The Newsroom on top) with a more tightly-written genre-based premise -- which should augur well with local audiences, who will probably resonate with the rage shown here against what is portrayed as an inept, cynical and untrustworthy establishment operating with scant regard for individual well-being.

The man who saw his agency gradually stripped away by this vast corporate-state complex is the journalist Yoon Young-hwa (Ha Jung-woo from The Yellow Sea), a jaded, recently-divorced hack plying his trade as a radio talk-show host after being sacked from his high-flying job as an anchorman at one of the country’s most established broadcasters. As the film begins, his life seems to be picking up again: having managed to contact and then conduct a running conversation with a man who has just blown up one of Seoul’s main bridges, Yoon is again thrust before the camera by his ex-boss Cha (Lee Kyung-yong) so as to beat other TV stations in their coverage of the bombing.

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Yoon’s excitement of being “in luck” with this potentially career-rejuvenating break is soon dampened by a gradual realization of how little control he has over the situation: his cockily-devised plot of directing the mysterious bomber-caller to become a character in a ratings-boosting melodrama is swiftly blown to smithereens, as Yoon discovers his ex-wife clinging on to dear life on a dangling part of the bridge and his personal safety inside the studio being placed at risk. As the police, the government and his employers try to drag him towards different directions in how to deal with the situation – with their efforts, mostly in getting Yoon to speak the lines they have drafted for him – Yoon is shown the real colors and culprits in a terrorized age, with the powers that be simply trying to shore up their interests in the most harrowing circumstances.

Indeed, The Terror Live is at its best when it strives to reveal the Machiavellian wheeling and dealing aiming to capitalize on the most drastic, life-threatening situations – and Kim’s screenplay is certainly audacious enough in offering no characters who would be able to walk away with their consciences clear: not even Yoon, whose spiraling fate could be seen as mostly his own undoing. Ha’s performance has done justice to this character with moral complications: gradually upping the dosages of anxiety and doubt he injected Yoon’s smug veneer, the actor has managed to portray a man quickly losing his moorings but having to at least pretend he’s putting up a good fight. 

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The terrorist on the line -- whose means could actually be argued as at least based on a just end, with him demanding the government to compensate and apologize to families of construction workers who died on site of an official mega-project because of official negligence – is actually more a catalyst serving to unlock the moral corruption of terror in the midst. Byun Bong-sun’s cinematography is adept in opening the possibilities for such depictions of horror within the tight confines of a studio, and the film’s production design has also managed to prop up Kim’s desire to outline the inner workings of 21st century 24-hour TV news operations.

And it’s when Kim is to tie up loose ends in the final act -- in a bombastic CGI-assisted ending which amplifies disaster and debris while Yoon faces off against his tormenting caller -- that The Terror Live exposes its own weakest link. By reverting to the final stand-off clichés probably more at home in more morally binary action-thrillers, Kim’s film actually lessens the disturbing revelations of reality about humanity which has been shown on screen before; it’s like when the terror show was put on hold for commercials from a more easily comprehensible world.

Reviewed at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production Companies: Cinema Service with Lotte Entertainment
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Lee Kyung-young, Jeon Hye-jin
Director: Kim Byeong-woo
Screenwriter: Kim Byeong-woo
Producers: Lee Chun-yeon, Chun Roy-kyoung
Director of cinematography: Byun Bong-sun
Music: Lee Ju-no
Editor: Kim Chang-ju
100 minutes