by David Cornelius
It seems you can’t make a serial killer thriller these days without endless comparisons to “Silence of the Lambs” and/or “Seven.” And while “H” does make mention of both titles in its marketing, and while it does owe plenty to both in terms of inspiration, the film itself manages to become its own beast.“H” is not as graphic or as bone-chilling as “Tell Me Something,” the previous knockout Korean serial killer chiller to make its way stateside - yet it does not want to be. This is a different kind of Asian thriller, unconcerned, for the most part, with gore (although there’s plenty of blood here, and a few shots are sure to get you squeamy). The emphasis in this story is instead on character, an unexpected turn in a genre devoted to ignoring people and plot.
"So solid it only needs one letter."
Here, finally, is a serial killer flick smart enough to realize that spending too much time around brutally mutilated corpses will probably shake you up in the noggin. Indeed, by the time the story opens, we already have one detective who’s killed himself because of his involvement, and another cop, the dead guy’s fiancée, has been holding one hell of a grudge for a year now.
This cop, Kim (Jung-ah Yum), is convinced that the person behind a new rash of killings is the same guy her now-dead beau busted. But how can this be, as he’s safely locked away in prison? Surely it’s just the work of a copycat (the killer has become somewhat of a celebrity, after all). Yet the rage that boils deep within Kim refuses to cool down, and she refuses to let this killer off the hook.
Which brings us to the obligatory scene in which the cops confront the locked-away madman. Yes, it takes its cue from “Lambs,” but it does not mindlessly copy it. Consider the effect a mere casting decision can make: Seung-woo Cho, playing the killer, Shin Hyun, is remarkably young, a mere 22 years old at the time of filming. Compare this to the middle-aged folks often hired to reproduce the Anthony Hopkins Look. And the actor looks even younger than he is, allowing the character to come off as a dangerous, impish type; there’s something chilling about someone this young, this boyish being this cold. (And oh, how the film so expertly handles the scene in which Shin Hyun deals out the crime scene photographs as if they’re cards in a game of solitaire. Creepy brilliance.)
I will not tell you whether or not Shin Hyun is involved in the killings. Although even if I did, there’s so much other stuff going on that I’m not even sure if it matters to know in advance. For we also have red herrings galore, plus red herrings that aren’t red herrings at all, plus red herrings that we think aren’t red herrings but then turn out to be red herrings, or maybe they’re not. The case itself is layer upon layer of mystery and confusion (consider the crime scene involving a newborn baby, an umbilical cord, and the strange fact that the two are not from the same mother, ew). And then there are the subplots, most notably fellow cop Kang (Jin-hee Ji), so anxious to catch the bad guy, so bogged down with a dark past (including a mother who’s a whore). To call “H” a tangle is to call a lobotomy a minor headache remedy.
The film runs the risk of derailing with a solution that falls into slightly unsatisfying territory - without giving anything away, all I can tell you is that it’s bound to get a few viewers sighing an “oh, come on!” or two. But watch what happens next. Writer/director Jong-Hyuk Lee (making an impressive, assured debut), so concerned with the character side of things, salvages this questionable solution by placing the emphasis once more on the people. Here we have an outlandish plot point, but how could it work itself out in a way that pushes things back to a more convincing scenario? “H” figures out the answer to this, taking an iffy finale and making it work again.
The emphasis on character, in fact, is what rescues the film throughout. “H” could have been a standard cop thriller, nothing special. But then we get scenes like the one in which the cops meet up at the local bar to drink themselves sour over their latest failure. “Fucking smart serial killers!” the groan. “Fucking dumb detectives!” And, of course, “What the fuck!!”This is a moment that made me smile. Rare is the film willing to reveal that it knows it’s giving us clichés, so much so that its characters grumble about it. This is the human side of movie characters often left unseen in favor of cheap thrills or flat plot twists. With “H,” we get the thrills and the twists, yes, but we also get the down time, a space where cliché and human nature collide.
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originally posted: 05/31/05 16:01:28