The Witness (South Korea, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Near the end of Cho Kyu-jang’s film about a witnessed murder and the raw challenge of owning up to one’s witnessing is perhaps the most pivotal moment regarding these issues: husband-father Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min) stands on a wintry night in a courtyard flanked by apartment complexes and yells ‘Help me!’ and ‘Please help!’ Yet all he gets in response are silent facades, indicative of absence in the apartments or, worse still, an absence of compassion in the face of someone experiencing violation and/or violence.

The spot covered in snow on which Sang-hoon stands when he utters his test plea to see if someone, anyone, would respond is the same site of an actual murder that takes place at the beginning of the film, with him as the titular witness. The film, then, is about what transpires from the time of the actual murder to Sang-hoon faux-shouting for help. In one way, given the film’s title, it is a kind of psychological exploration of a person who not only inadvertently witnesses a brutal murder – which then triggers other murders – but also confronts head-on the complex ethics involved in how one reacts to being a witness to such violence, at the moment of witnessing and afterwards. In another way, the film as a whole is a conventional thriller that neatly resolves any ethical dilemma or narrative conflict with over-the-top (masculinist) heroics and a deus ex machina in the form of a natural disaster. In this way, the film disavows taking the subject of witnessing seriously as it claims to do so during roughly the first two-thirds of its running time. But let us backtrack a bit so that the disappointing aspect of such plot points becomes clearer.

Coincidentally enough, the film begins with an upside-down shot of a road that rights itself as a car passes by through the night. And not so coincidentally enough, two things take place on this night that converge with a cruel murder and its witnessing: a woman breaks free from the trunk of (said) car and tries to flee her kidnapper and Sang-hoon has attained a certain economic bracket after having bought and moved into a new place with his wife and daughter and is therefore treating some of his co-workers to a night of drinking. These two developments unwittingly intersect when the woman runs into the aforementioned courtyard surrounded by apartment complexes, one of which now houses Sang-hoon and his family, and Sang-hoon arrives at his apartment. It is late and upon entering his home, Sang-hoon tries to wind down and shake off his slight inebriation. But what definitively does the job are screams for help that he hears in the silence of the night. He turns to his balcony, which he discovers gives him a clear view of a woman who is beaten by a man with a hammer. What does Sang-hoon do? Or better yet, what does he not do?

An emotionally engaging beginning, which the film builds upon by further paralleling Sang-hoon’s post-witnessing psychological torment and the killer loose and presumably on the hunt for him (though he is not given any backstory whatsoever). The film even extends the ethics and subject of witnessing when the homeowners association of Sang-hoon’s apartment complex issues a petition to not cooperate with the media or police regarding the murder, lest their units and the neighbourhood overall lose property value and prestige. This attitude that favours numbers over bodies is the film’s most caustic jab at self-preservation and selfishness when confronted with someone else’s trauma, especially if that someone is already dead.

For Sang-hoon, wavering between his reasoning to safe-keep his own self and family and the guilt of not speaking out about his witnessing slowly eats away at his nerves, while knowing that the killer is still roaming free and now definitely pursuing him further rankles his everyday sense of self and behaviour. Veteran actor Lee makes palpable every nuance of shock, horror, fear, confusion, and frustration—not only with what he has witnessed but also with himself—that courses through Sang-hoon’s body and mind, demonstrating how long overdue is the recognition that he is now getting in the form of lead roles in cinema after toiling in television dramas.

Despite its convention qualities, the film up to this point is nevertheless intriguing precisely because of its more detailed look at the subject and ethics of witnessing. Even a seasoned detective, who wants to see justice rendered instead of just making the headlines, entering the picture does not initially derail the film’s exploration of its subject.

But the derailment and disappointment sadly come when the film structurally abandons its exploration of witnessing (though, truth be told, it is only half-interested in it to begin with, for the sake of suspense) to transform the film and Sang-hoon into a Dirty Harry (1971)-type work of personal retaliation. Such belated acting upon his witnessing from Sang-hoon ultimately rings very hollow, which makes the opening shot mentioned above even more coincidentally telling. This hollowness is only slightly redeemed by the scene described at the beginning of this review.

The Witness is showing on November 12 and 14 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.