Murder, Take One

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/12/06 01:34:42

"Has a good thing going but muffs the ending"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: The first reaction to "Murder, Take One" is to dismiss its premise as ridiculous, a strawman created expressly for satirical purposes. But in a world with "Cops", CourtTV, Dick Wolf's "Crime & Punishment", and the like, is Jang Jin's idea of real-time, all-access coverage of a murder investigation all that far-fetched? Aside from the impossibility of finding a jury that could try the case - perhaps not a stumbling block in Korea, and some American cops and D.A.s would take their chances - what's stopping it?

A woman is found in a hotel room, stabbed nine times, dead only a couple hours. A suspicious-looking man is picked up twenty minutes later, and it looks like an open-and-shut case for Prosecutor Choi Yeon-gi (Cha Seung-Won). Things won't be quite so simple, though - the suspect, Kim Young-hun, refuses to confess, and forensic evidence reveals the case more complicated than the multiple stab wounds would imply. To make matters worse, a television network has obtained special dispensation to follow a murder investigation from discovery to resolution, with a panel of experts in-studio, opinion polls, and no hope of keeping developments under wraps.

Jing based the film on a play he also wrote, and it's still explicitly divided into acts - "The Discovery", "The Interrogation", etc., and adapted to film it's a useful structure to show the passage of time (each act begins with a time-stamp) and gently pokes at the rigid structure of the crime/mystery shows that are apparently as popular on Korean television as they are in the United States (CSI is even mentioned in the subtitled dialog). Still, Jang takes advantage of the different medium for some filmic touches. For instance, there's a funny scene toward the beginning, where a co-worker builds Choi up as an uber-badass whom criminals cower from, and the scene that goes through the listening TV producer's head is hilarious. And check out the opening scene, where the camera pulls up from the crime scene to reveal all the activity going on across the hotel's twelfth floor, cutaway style, before dropping back down to street level. It's a fun, showy shot, reminiscent of a similar trick in Dogville, but more interesting, as the couple banging away in the next room (and the kids jumping on the bed a few doors down) says something about how inured we can be to violent crime.

The cast is nice, too. Cha Seung-Won's Choi is constantly being told by the TV people that he's very telegenic, and I don't disagree - Cha makes it clear that Choi is smart and driven without falling back on generic "intensity". When the character loses patience with the TV producers, he tends to do it in an amusing way, suggesting that while he might lose patience, he'll never lose his cool. He uses his intelligence like a weapon in the interrogation room, as a way to gain power over his suspect. Of course, that suspect matches him beat for beat - Shin Ha-gyun starts Kim off as appearing jittery and panicky, and it looks like he's either guilty but a moron or being railroaded. It's to Shin's credit that as he allows more intelligence and capability to emerge from Kim's exterior, the more ambiguous the character becomes - usually hidden brains are a sure tip-off to a character being guilty, but it's not here.

Through most of the movie, I was really enjoying the procedural and satirical pieces. It's not quite as good at the media satire as Johnnie To's Breaking News (which played this festival last year), but there's something very amusing about the bombast of the studio host who claims the network is trying to fight crime rather than profit from it is a nice touch, while the interviews of people with no first-hand knowledge of the case at hand seem sadly true-to-life. I got a real kick out of the guy reviewing the hotel security tapes, both in how he zings the producer who doesn't get that the zoom-and-enhance thing only happens in the movies, and how everybody seems to assume that the job is a lot more automated and less time-consuming than it really is. And I dug how Choi's "eureka moment" comes from a Korean cultural thing that I totally missed.

But, man, this movie comes close to blowing it all in the last act. I could kind of buy that the TV people would want to bring in a medium, and the cops' reaction to it was nice to see, but at that point the movie started really becoming what it had been making fun of - we get a cute kid who puts Choi in awkward situations, grandstanding speeches, the theatrics are no longer hollow. There's a revelation that outright angered me for being outside the reality and genre the film had established which didn't seem to add anything. And as neat as the last scene is in how it shows no piece of evidence is too small, the pull-together takes too long. You still get a mystery solved, but how it happens is almost a betrayal.

Crying shame, too. "Murder, Take One" was steadily climbing from clever to excellent as it went along, but that collapse brings it down to average. Instead of being a movie to seek out, it winds up being one that's worth seeing if it somehow winds up in front of you.

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