Director: Huh Jung
Writer: Huh Jung
Producer: Kim Eui-Sung
Cast: Son Hyun-Joo, Jeon Mi-Sun, Moon Jeong-Hee, Jung Joon-Won, Kim Soo-Ahn, Kim Ji-Young, Kim Won-Hae
Running Time: 107 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s always refreshing when an Asian horror movie is released that doesn’t revolve around long haired black ghosts or tormented spirits, so when director and screenwriter Huh Jung made his debut with 2013’s Hide and Seek, it came as a welcome addition to the genre. The hook was simple yet terrifying, posing the question of what if someone else was living in your property other than just you, but you had no idea? While it’s not an idea that’s never been used before, Kim Ki-duk’s 2004 production 3 Iron notably used the same concept but with romantic trappings, the decision to use it as a basis for a horror movie was an undeniable stroke of genius.
The opening of Hide and Seek sets a deliberately creepy tone. Taking place in a dreary and dilapidated port side town, we follow a smartly dressed young woman as she makes her way home late night from the office, briskly walking past the rows of parked trucks and the sleeping drivers within. The apartment block she’s staying in has clearly seen better days, its stained walls and criss-crossing concrete structure providing a distinctly foreboding feel, as it becomes apparent that she lives there. Upon arriving in her apartment, she soon notices some of her belongings aren’t in the same place she left them. Convinced that it’s her weird next door neighbour that’s been creeping around in her place, she promptly goes to confront him, furiously banging on his front door and demanding he come out, but all to no response. However when she returns to her own apartment to cool off, it’s soon revealed that she’s not alone.
It’s a textbook opening of how to immediately get an audience’s attention, and it works perfectly. The brief sighting of a figure, their head covered by an old motorcycle helmet, decked out fully in black, effectively plugs into the primitive fear of a stranger that could be hiding in the very place we feel the most safe. After the unsettling opening, we’re introduced to the principle characters of the piece. Son Hyun-joo (The Phone) and Jeon Mi-seon (Mother) play husband and wife along with their two kids, who have re-located back to Seoul from America, and now live in one of the Korean capitals modern apartment complexes. It’s a world away from the run down environment of the opening, and the cinematography does a stellar job of conveying the bright and clean contemporary look of their home.
However despite the contrast in environments, Jung keeps an almost constant sense of underlying tension. While they appear like the perfect nuclear family, it soon becomes apparent that Hyun-joo has a serious case of OCD. It’s never overtly stated, but rather conveyed in seemingly throwaway shots, such as his insistence on turning every can in the fridge label forward, and Mi-seon casually mentioning if he’s been taking his pills, all of which play their part in hinting that not everything is as idyllic as it seems. The plot really kicks in though when Hyun-joo receives a call that his brother, who’s recently been released from prison, has gone missing. The police found Hyun-joo’s number scrawled in a notebook in the apartment he was residing in, along with a note stating that he’s going to disappear for a while, and as expected, the apartment is the one next door to the woman we follow in the opening.
Jung deserves credit for weaving together a tale with a number of both openly conveyed and indirect sub-plots, and for a debut director he balances them all with a level of confidence that belies his relative lack of experience. Apart from the most obvious question of whether Hyun-joo’s missing brother is the murderer, as an audience we feel equally invested in knowing why Hyun-joo developed OCD, why was his brother in prison, and why does Hyun-joo seem surprised that he’s been released? The casting of Hyun-joo was a smart choice, in a performance that makes him both a believable husband and father, while also portraying the nuances of someone who it gradually becomes increasingly clear is harbouring some dark secrets. He may not be a familiar name, but he’s played the lead in a countless number of mid-budget productions, and is always a reliable presence.
Almost as much of a character as the actors in Hide and Seek, is the dilapidated apartment building that the brother lives in. Hyun-joo and his family initially go there together, looking as out of place in the neighbourhood as a steak in a vegan restaurant. While initially disgusted by what they find in the filthy abode, Hyun-joo’s personality soon sees him sticking around to try and root out the answers he’s looking for. Eventually he meets with another family living there, a shabby looking mother and daughter who are initially welcoming, but upon learning that the man Hyun-joo is looking for is his brother, violently scream at him to leave and make his brother “stop peeping” at them. The suggestion that the woman wasn’t the only target for the mysterious masked figure ups the ante considerably, and Hyun-joo’s discovery of strange markings under each door buzzer only cranks things up even more, especially when the same markings appear in his own apartment block.
Jung crafts some wonderful scenes of terror into the tight 1 hr 45 min runtime. One of my favorites of which has the mysterious figure knocking on the door of Hyun-joo’s apartment, knowing that only the two kids are at home, which draws its suspense from the natural urge anyone has to open the door in such a situation. With their mother on the phone, the more she tells them to ignore it, the more frantic the knocking becomes, until the door is almost being pounded off the hinges, all the while with the kids sitting right in front of it. It’s executed perfectly, with the camera angle looking up at the door from the kid’s perspective, knowing that some unseen terror is just on the other side of it.
However, as much as it pains me to say it, Hide and Seek throws in a twist about two thirds of the way in, which simply beggars belief. There has been so much build up for most of the movie – flashbacks to Hyun-joo and his brothers past, the revelation that his brother had been enquiring into who the true owner of Hyun-joo’s property is, the daughter constantly feeling under the weather after visiting the apartment, and even a homeless guy who attempts to abduct the kids. Part of the appeal of all these separate elements is waiting to see how they’ll fit together, but in Hide and Seek, they don’t. Almost everything implicated in the bulk of the movie is simply ignored, and it randomly becomes like a Korean version of Dream Home.
My only theory with this is that Jung must have started his story backwards, knowing how he wanted to end it, then looked at how he could incorporate in as many red herrings as possible to throw the audience off the true nature of what’s happening. However the huge problem with this is that, what turn out to be the red herrings are actually the most interesting parts of Hide and Seek, so for them to suddenly be revealed to have no bearing on the conclusion is a deflating experience. The finale also decides to throw logic out of the window. A big part of the creepiness that permeated the old apartment building was its state of disrepair and age, making it feel perfectly plausible that someone could move between the units without being noticed. That could never work in Hyun-joo’s modern security monitored abode, however Jung’s script wants us to believe that it could.
This stretches into the final shot of Hide and Seek, one which is clearly telegraphed thanks to the character it involves being completely absent from a prior sequence that, for all intents and purposes, should have seen them involved front and center. While knowing what you want the final shot of your movie to be is all well and good, you at least need to respect filmmaking logic in order to arrive at it, and here it’s completely ignored. The other fatal error is the key point that, not knowing who’s behind the mask is one of the scariest elements about the mysterious figure, so revealing the identity naturally dissipates that terror of the unknown. When the twist does come, the identity is immediately revealed, and the nature of the reveal renders any sense of fear null and void.
These elements make Hide and Seek a frustrating experience, as for the best part of an hour it’s a remarkably strong and genuinely scary effort, but it serves as proof that one bad decision can unravel everything that’s come before. Still, there’s enough good in Hide and Seek to mark Jung as a director to keep an eye on, and in 2017 he’ll release his sophomore feature in the form of The Mimic, which sees him sticking with the horror genre. For now though, to go back to an earlier reference, Hide and Seek is like ordering a well done steak, only for you to get half way through eating and find the rest is only rare. It’s still a steak, but it’s not what you wanted.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10