Director: Lee So-Youn
Producer: Choi Jae-Won
Cast: Cho Jin-Woong, Shin Goo Kim, Dae-Myung, Lee Chung-Ah, Song Young-Chang, Yoon Se-Ah
Running Time: 117 min.
By Kyle Warner
In recent years, serial killer thrillers have fallen out of favor in Hollywood. The reason, I think, is that movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en gave filmmakers a solid blueprint to follow, and many screenwriters followed it too closely. There’s a reason why fictionalized wannabe screenwriters in the movies are often writing a serial killer script — it’s like an inside joke that the audience only kinda gets. There is one place that’s still putting out serial killer thrillers with the regularity we used to see in Hollywood; South Korea. Why they’re still finding success with the sub-genre is that their killer films are bolder, more willing to buck the blueprint and do their own thing. The Chaser, I Saw the Devil, Memories of Murder, these are brilliant, masterful films, but even lesser-known films like Tell Me Something, Confession of Murder, and Blood Rain are productions worth talking about. Now, we come to Bluebeard, director Lee So-youn’s first feature since her popular debut, The Uninvited.
Colonoscopy specialist Dr. Seung-hoon (Jo Jin-woong) has fallen on hard times. A nasty divorce and a failing private practice have forced him to move from Gangnam to a small town along the Han River. He’s renting an apartment above a family run butcher shop and doing his best not to get spooked by the town’s history of unsolved crimes. One day, when the rest of the doctor’s office is out to lunch, Dr. Seung-hoon pushes his landlord (Goo Shin) to the front of the line for an appointment. Now, Seung-hoon is used to hearing all sorts of strange mumblings from his patients while they’re under anesthetic. But his landlord starts whispering about body parts… human body parts… hidden across the city and dumped into the lake. “Fingerprints? If you’re worried, cut off the fingers…” Deeply disturbed, Dr. Seung-hoon just stares at his sedated landlord. Then the landlord wakes up from his stupor and wonders why the doc has that funny look on his face.
When a headless, limbless torso washes up in the thawing Han River, Dr. Seung-hoon starts to really worry about the family that lives below him. He starts snooping. The landlord’s son, the butcher Sung-geun (Kim Dae-myung), is an approachable guy, so the doctor starts there. He drinks with the butcher until they’re both good and drunk. When the butcher steps away for a moment, Seung-hoon slips into the butcher shop’s freezer… and discovers what appears to be a head in a black, plastic bag.
Mysteries abound in Bluebeard. Seung-hoon’s paranoia becomes our own. Is the family that lives below him a pack of killers? What’s in the black bag? Whose body washed up on the shore? And what’s up with the old man in the bucket hat hanging around the doctor’s waiting room without an appointment day after day? Seung-hoon is a big fan of mystery novels because, as a doctor, he says he likes that the books always present an answer at the end. As the audience, we become desperate for an answer to this mystery, and it quickly becomes apparent that perhaps Seung-hoon is the last man we want as our detective. Seung-hoon begins imagining things. He wakes up screaming night after night. Imagination and reality begin to blur. He is the very definition of the unreliable narrator.
Bluebeard is full of twists. It’s a clever film. However, for my part, I need to be invested in the movie for a twist to wow me. Bluebeard teases and cheats its audience too often. Many of the best scenes are revealed to be nightmares as Seung-hoon wakes up screaming just when things are getting good. It’s interesting, because we’re watching a man whose fear is making him fall apart. But I never shared that fear. One or two ‘it was all a dream’ reveals are acceptable. But when that’s the film’s go-to trick, I start to tune out.
Jo Jin-woong is excellent as the rattled and paranoid Dr. Seung-hoon. He’s in total command of the screen, starting as a totally sympathetic character before gradually evolving into an enigma of a man. He may not be the most recognizable name to film fans in the West, but after Bluebeard and a fantastic sleazy performance in The Handmaiden, expect to see more of him in the coming years. Kim Dae-myung (Pandora) is great as the butcher who keeps us wondering ‘is he a monster or isn’t he?’ And Song Young-chang (Thirst) is good as the mystery man in the waiting room who has a story to tell.
Director Lee So-Youn’s film is good looking and well-paced. A thick layer of sweat seems to cover everything. The gradual uncovering of secrets only serves to create new mysteries. At the end, when all is revealed, we’re told, ‘Wait, there’s more,’ and even more bombshells are dropped on us.
It’s a twisty film. One wishes it was a little more twisted, though, I suppose. The ‘just a dream’ fake-outs get a little old and grant the viewer a feeling of safety that such a film probably shouldn’t have. I did like the unreliable narrator expertly played by Jo Jin-woong but the way the mystery unfolded kept me at arm’s length.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6.5/10