'Idol' ('Woo Sang'): Film Review | Berlin 2019
Tension abounds in Lee Su-jin’s blood-soaked South Korean thriller, which thrusts a budding politician into a hit-and-run case.
There seem to be more dead bodies in Idol (Woo Sang) than in the average gangland shoot-out — and as they pile up, the chances of unraveling the plot of writer-director Lee Su-jin’s second feature (the first was Han Gong-ju, a rape drama) become slimmer and slimmer. Dyed-in-the-wool genre fans may want to challenge their intellectual faculties to make sense of the endless twists and turns, but this Berlin Panorama entry doesn’t look like a hot property for Finecut outside South Korea, where the actors are well known.
Drowned in a rain-soaked landscape that is passably noir-ish, Idol is good at building tension with its rapid-fire scene switching, but bad at constructing characters on which to hang the story. With so much narrative uncertainty, there's no one to root for or to care about, making the confused climax an exercise in frustration.
When Koo Myung-hui (Han Seok-kyu), an herbal doctor turned politician, returns home one night, he finds his wife crouched beside the car with a bloody corpse. Their teenage son Johan has hit someone while driving on a lonely road and then thoughtfully brought the body home. While Koo’s wife is all for disposing of the cadaver, our hero is too honest and upright a man for that. He forces his son to turn himself in, two days later, after returning the body to the place where he hit the man.
Enter his antagonist, Joong-sik (a live-wire, bleached blond Sul Kyung-gu), the grieving father of Bu-nam, the boy who has been killed. He was feeble-minded and, oddly enough, he was on his honeymoon at the time of the accident. The father’s hysterical fit in the morgue clues us in that he will stop at nothing to see justice done. Though he’s a working man with limited resources, he hires a private eye to look into some odd features of the accident.
Police cameras reveal that the body only appeared on the side of the road on the second day after it was hit. They also show a young woman running away from the accident scene. This is Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee of The Wailing), the dead boy’s bride. She's an illegal Chinese immigrant who worked in a massage parlor and, we later learn, was personally selected by Joong-sik as his daughter-in-law to make his son happy. Before that, he himself masturbated the boy to give him sexual release. (Yes, and this is given great emphasis in the film as proof of the father’s great love.)
At this point the story disintegrates into plot strands and peripheral characters. Everybody is after the vanished Ryeon-hwa, who may have witnessed the accident. Koo hires a private detective of his own, but he gets on her trail faster. Everything we know about Koo’s noble character is thrown out the window when he gets hold of the girl and uses his medical knowledge to inject her with what might be truth serum. As if that wasn’t enough, he mistreats his P.I. rather badly.
Now sympathy shifts to Joong-sik, with his hang-dog look of suffering and aggressive pursuit of the truth, but he’s too much of a wild card to trust. Everyone he and Koo meet in the course of their investigations has a good chance of winding up with a knife in their back or without a head. And everyone seems like a potential killer. Director Lee muddies the waters far too much in a head-spinning series of turnarounds and homicides that leave the viewer reeling.
It’s a nice touch that Han, the Korean star who has played Secret Service agents in The Berlin File and The President’s Last Bang, deftly fools not only his electorate with his good-guy image, but the audience, too. On the other hand, a heroic politician was too much to hope for. As fly-off-the-handle Joong-sik, Sul (known for the popular Public Enemy film franchise) is so mannered that his earnestness becomes suspect.
The third meaty role falls to Chun as the elusive bride, who switches effortlessly between looking beat-up and witchy, and glamorous and deadly. Her character introduces the illegal immigrant theme of Chinese escaping to South Korea, but this is a subtext that does no favors to immigrants.
Production companies: Pollux Barunson Production, Vill Lee Film, CGV Arthouse
Cast: Han Seok-kyu, Sul Kyung-gu, Chun Woo-hee
Director-screenwriter: Lee Su-jin
Producers: Kang Kyung-ho, An Eun-mi, Eoh Ji-yeon, Han Sang-hyun
Director of photography: Son Won-ho
Production designers: Kim Si-yong, Jeong Eye-wun
Editor: Choi Hyun-sook
Music: Kim Tae-seong
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
World sales: Finecut