The one thing I can say about this film right off the bat is that is certainly relishes in toying with the audiences’ emotions and subverting their expectations from the very first frame. We see our villain within the first minute or so of screen time, so there’s no real mystery to be had in wondering who could be revealed as the killer, we’re instead left with the squirm-inducing moments of red tape that confound the police at every turn and the happenstance that draws our lead frustratingly close to answers that don’t quite pan out.
But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s hit that synopsis first, shall we?
Joong-ho (played by Yun-seok Kim) is a disgraced police detective turned pimp, a job which he’s not all that successful at due to recent disappearances of a couple of his girls, who he assumes have simply skipped out on him or been taken in by a rival pimp. The film opens with one of his girls meeting a client and driving to his home, then time lapsed photography reveals that the car she drove there is left unattended long enough to draw handfuls of leaflets and tickets before Joong-ho finally locates it; assuming no foul play, he swears that this latest girl is dead if he ever catches up to her.
Shortly thereafter Joong-ho is forced to deal with a client that gets out of hand with one of his girls, trying to video-tape the encounter and roughing her up in the process. As he drives her back to the office she expresses anger that he isn’t looking into the disappearances of the other girls, which gets him thinking about what might actually be going on. His next hurdle is the ever dwindling number of girls he actually has on hand to send out on calls, so he’s soon on the phone trying to convince one of his few remaining regulars Mi-jin (Jung-woo Ha) to go meet a client even though she’s called in sick for the day. He’s able to badger her into going in spite of a fever and we get a small look into her home life with her young daughter before she leaves the child home alone to go to ‘work’.
Joong-ho finds the cellphone that was left behind in his car by his girl who went MIA, and upon further investigation realizes that the last number contacted is the same as the number given to Mi-jin for her rendezvous, so he decides to use her as bait to track down this client or possibly rival pimp who he thinks could be stealing his whores. This is an interesting turn for the viewer, as we have an idea that things are obviously much more sinister than something as simple as a rival, but Joong-ho spends a good amount of the film unaware of how bad the situation actually is. He calls Mi-jin and instructs her to excuse herself when she arrives at this guy’s house and text him the address so he can confront the guy and find out his connection to the missing women.
Mi-jin enters the house with growing trepidation, as Young-min (The delightfully creepy and frustrating Yeong-hie Seo) seems a bit off from the first moment she lays eyes on him and the randomly placed shovel in the yard outside doesn’t help. She goes to the bathroom and is unable to get a phone signal, and then begins to take in the details of the Saw-esque setting, including a bloody wad of hair near the drain of the filthy tub and what appears to be a blood-stained hook on the wall.
Joong-ho makes his way to the general area he suspects Mi-jin to be in, but he’s unable to track her down until a random chance encounter brings him face to face with a blood-stained Young-min in the middle fo committing a totally unrelated crime. The car accident that brings them together draws the attention of the police, who soon take them both into custody, Joong-ho for impersonating a police officer as he tries to throw around his weight to intimidate Young-min to find out what he’s up to. Once at the police station Joong-ho clashes with the cops, who are angrier at him than at the quiet troubled loner guy with blood (!) on his shirt, but once discrepancies in Young-min’s story begin to become apparent they start to ask him more direct questions, culminating in his casual confession to 12 murders.
Young-min is taken into custody by Gil-woo, an old co-worker of Joong-ho’s from his time on the force and it becomes apparent that Young-min will be set free if the police can’t turn up any tangible evidence of foul-play and sufficient cause to charge him within the next 12 hours. This sends Joong-ho on an increasingly frantic quest to track down whatever lair Young-min has been working out of, though his mannerisms and patterns have allowed him to operate rather frustratingly off the grid as an ex-con, making it difficult to find any information about his whereabouts.
Joong-ho’s character truly takes a turn when he and a police officer visit Mi-jin’s apartment and discover her daughter, who he’d never even known existed. Once he’s faced with the harsh reality of the situation he’s put Mi-jin into, he grudgingly begins to grow as a person, which is a very interesting journey to watch. The character isn’t all that good of a person, and his reluctant hero status is confirmed in scenes scored only in music as he drives with the sobbing child in his passenger seat, ignoring her cries as he focuses on the matter at hand; he’s not a sympathetic person, but he seems to slowly, grudgingly begin to lean towards a person who’s doing the right thing, even if it’s only out of the obligation that’s been thrust upon him.
The film moves at a fairly slow pace, which may frustrate some, but I never really noticed it, as there are some interesting bits of convenience and happenstance that manage to never feel contrived, instead there’s just enough plausibility to the events to make them acceptable and keep the narrative moving along. The film goes into much darker places than I expected it to in the latter half of the film and on more than one occasion rather deftly gives us a brief glimmer of hope before slapping us back down again. It’s definitely something of an emotional ride, ending on a slightly hopeful note once it’s all said and done, but just barely.
This seems to be indicative of most of the South Korean cinema I’ve sought out thus far, beautifully made, but inherently depressing on most levels. I’d definitely recommend this one and I can understand the acclaim that has been heaped upon in since it hit theaters in 2008.
Review by Bill of Dear Bastards…