FANTASIA: OUR TOWN Review
[Once again pulling forward an earlier review for a film that played here in Udine yesterday. Having the chance to see Our Town on the big screen only reinforced my opinions below ... this is one very good film ...]
If you sit down and think about it calmly and rationally, Jung Gil Young's dueling serial killer thriller Our Town is a film that very likely shouldn't work. The premise stretches believability and as the film progresses Young piles on emotional traumas and character connections by the boatload in the name of ramping up the tension and melodramatic catharsis. But it does work, and it works very well indeed, thanks to hugely charismatic and believable performances from the film's three leads and stylish, energetic direction from Young that keeps you so caught up in this bizarre, twisted world that you happily forget that it operates on a set of rules and principals that you'd simply never find at play in reality. Can it be that between this film, The Chaser and Epitaph Korea is finally producing some legitimate young talent and showing signs of shaking off its extended slump? Damn straight.
We begin in an empty playing field in an anonymous town, the camera slowly panning across a scene that could be any place, any where, and virtually any time in Korea. It's the sort of scene that you could find simply stepping out of your front door any morning - which is entirely the point - except this particular field includes the bloody body of a young woman slain and strung up cruciform, suspended from a horizontal gymnastics bar. There is a killer on the loose, a cold blooded and very deliberate predator who has struck four times now, killing one female victim each month, his very particular method followed closely each time. The city is in shock, the police making no progress in finding clues or even a link between victims that may give them a hint where to start.
Jae Shin is the young lieutenant in charge of the case, a driven and successful young man who is essentially living in the police station until the case is solved. In stark contrast is Jae Shin's childhood best friend, Kyung Joo, a failing novelist using details from the real killings in his new novel in a bid to inject some realism and attract a publisher. His failures mounting, Kyung Joo drinks too much and pays his rent too seldom, a combination that leads him to commit a murder of his own, a murder that attracts the attention of the real killer and sets the pair on a collision course.
As a director, Young fuses hard edged violence and graphic imagery with an exceptionally dark sense of humour and the sense of high melodrama typical to Korean films but made palatable here by Young's insistence on playing those elements as understated as possible and keeping them firmly within the realities of his characters. Stop and think about Jae Shin and Kyung Joo's personal histories, not to mention their connection to the primary killer of the film, and the way the trio interacts as a whole and those elements pile up so high that it verges on ridiculous but played as simply and straight ahead as they are in the film those very same elements actually play quite convincingly as tragedy. Instead of bogging the film down into sappy attempts at drawing tears or explaining away the flaws of the characters - a flaw that has killed many a Korean film - the extensive, though not immediately apparent, connections create a puzzle box of a picture, a film that continually reveals new layers of tragedy, violence and payback as it unfolds. Add to that fact that Young shoots some truly beautiful film while also having a flawless sense of the grotesque and an impressive ability to manipulate tension and it's clear that he is a very significant talent to watch.
As strong as Young is, however, his skills would have been entirely wasted if the casting was even an inch wrong on this one and, happily, he is blessed with a trio of outstanding actors who each play their part to perfection. Prolific actor Lee Sun Gyun has never had a true international break out role but he gives his part as Jae Shin just the right amount of gravity and makes his complicated relationship with his childhood best friend Kyung Joo perfectly believable, one scene where he realizes that his friend is more involved in these crimes than he should be played to absolute perfection. Young star Ryu Deok Hwan plays the unhinged psychosis of the film's primary villain with surprising subtlety, a performance filled with little touches and grace notes combined a remarkable willingness to go to some very nasty places, a performance that suggests to me that he may well prove to be a younger answer to Shin Ha Kyun. The real star of the show, though, is Soo's Oh Man Seok who, by god, should be a major, major star based on the strength of his work here. Enormously charismatic while also quietly understated - a hard trick, that - he is a treat to watch, one of those rare actors who can sell a character with a glance or a shift in posture. It is the conflicting urges within his part as Kyung Joo that drive the picture and he is compelling throughout.
In the wrong hands Our Town could very easily have devolved into something unbearable to watch, and not for the right reasons. There are so many places where this film could have gone wrong, so many places where it could easily have tipped over the edge into cheap sentimentality or broad caricature but somehow Young and his talented cast found the path through it. Very entertaining and technically impressive Our Town is one of Korea's most striking films of the past couple years.