Director: Lee Chul-Ha
Producer: Jung Kyung-Il
Cast: Gang Ye-Won, Lee Sang-Yoon, Choi Jin-Ho, Ji Dae-Han, Chun Min-Hee, Lee Hak-Joo, Choi Yoon-So, Jo Jae-Yun, Kim Jong-Soo, Jang Tae-Seong, Yu Geon
Running Time: 91 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Mainstream Korean horror has always been a tricky beast, dating back to when the new wave really put Korean cinema on the map in the early 2000’s, the one constant seemed to be over promise and under deliver. Posters set expectations for buckets of blood (Cello), or grizzly decapitations (The Cut), however the product that ended up onscreen rarely matched the expectations that the artwork provided. In 2016, nothing seems to have changed much since those days. Yes, admittedly the poster for Insane gives very little away, instead leaning on the appeal of popular TV drama actor Lee Sang-yoon, and patchy actress Kang Ye-won. However the spirit of over-selling is still there, as the production was promised to be an intense psychological journey into the horrors of a woman convinced she’s going insane.
For a while, director Lee Cheol-ha looks like he’s going to follow through on the promise. Insane opens with a terrific shot, very similar to an equally fantastic shot that opens The Shameless, which sees the camera slicing diagonally down through the skyscrapers of Seoul, before settling on Ye-won just as she’s grabbed and bundled into a van by what appear to be police officers. Soon she’s been forcibly restrained, has a preventative gag stuck in her mouth, and is forced to strip and shower. It turns out she’s been admitted as a patient in a mental hospital, although where and why she’s there are a mystery. It’s nasty stuff, and proceedings look set to follow a grimy and unpleasant path.
Then, just like that, the tone completely changes. We’re asked to forget about the rather traumatising opening, and are abruptly introduced to Sang-yoon’s character, the producer of an investigative crime show, who’s in the middle of being interviewed on a talk show. The segment is interrupted though when news of a scandal involving Sang-yoon’s show is delivered to the host, and as a result he’s left out in the wind. Skip forward a year later, and he’s given a chance at redemption by hosting a show about unexplained phenomena – ghosts, things that go bump in the night etc. Sang-yoon is understandably displeased at the proposition, however a partially burnt diary grabs his attention, which looks to have been written by a mental patient proclaiming to be locked up against her will.
It is of course Ye-won’s diary, and we learn that not only did the mental hospital burn down in a fire, but she’s also currently locked up and awaiting trial for the murder of her step-father. Naturally Sang-yoon makes it his mission to find out the truth, determined that breaking the story will make him a hot producer once more, and he won’t need to bother with the goofy supernatural show. Right here is the first major problem that Insane has, as it quickly changes its footing to become an investigative thriller about Sang-yoon uncovering the truth. We already know Ye-won is out of the hospital, so there’s not even an element of knowing she’s in danger, instead, it simply becomes a by-the-numbers thriller of a disgraced TV producer trying to get his ticket back to prime time. Who cares?
Director Lee Cheol-ha obviously wants us to, but one look at his filmography reveals he’s never spent long enough working within one genre to figure out how. After working as an assistant director on the 2000 classic Il Mare, he’s frequently skipped from melodrama (2006’s Love Me Not), found-footage horror (2010’s Deserted House), and documentary (2013’s Hello Orchestra), to now what he’d no doubt like us to believe is a psychological horror. In fairness, he occasionally throws in a scene to remind (probably himself as much as) the audience, that Insane is a horror flick. There’s a severed head in a box, a patients organs are attempted to be removed while they’re still alive, and there’s a hallucinatory dream sequence. However, it all feel like it’s there because it’s obligated to be, too obviously providing exclamation marks in an otherwise dull story.
So with expectations dashed that Insane is going to be any kind of descent into one woman’s madness, the success of the movie lies in its big reveal. Whose behind Ye-won’s forced stay in the mental hospital? What were their reasons for putting her there? Will Sang-yoon be able to return to hosting a prime time TV show? Sadly, the more details that are hinted at as to why Ye-won was incarcerated the way she was, the more ridiculous the movie becomes, begging the question of if it’s even worth reaching the end of. Revelations that are completely uninteresting, and devoid of any horror element whatsoever, are fed to the audience as if they’re signs of a fantastically smart script.
To be honest, if Insane was a 60 minute TV drama special, it would probably get a serviceable pass. However a movie should look and feel like a movie, and Cheol-ha’s style of direction simply doesn’t. The script certainly does its part to work against him as well, as while it focuses on some aspects very closely, others it simple drops and never returns to. In one of the most misconstrued scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Sang-yoon and his ghost show crew (partially dressed as ghosts and witches) visit the mental hospital site to gather some footage. While there, a survivor from the fire is found, badly burnt and running around them like some kind of ghostly apparition, even though the scene is clearly well lit. It’s like Cheol-ha had completely missed the point of the scene in the script, which is much more likely that it should have been shot dark, and then they sense that they’re not alone.
The victim turns out to be one of the nurses who used to work in the hospital, the one of course who took pity on Ye-won and wanted to help her escape. During the course of the movie though, when Sang-yoon comes to visit him in the current hospital, the nurses advises he just disappeared. What happened to him? Actually you’ll never get to know, as it seems this plot point was forgotten about in the final version, and where exactly he disappeared to (and again, why?), is never touched upon. Factors like this are simply down to poor filmmaking, nothing more.
It’s a shame, as the more we learn about the nurse through flashbacks, the more he becomes one of the very few characters that it’s possible to care about even just a little. The lack of likeable characters is another one of Insane’s biggest issues – Sang-yoon just wants to get back on prime time TV, and his character isn’t developed any further than that, nor do his motivations change at any point. While it’s not entirely his fault, he clocks in a performance that’s as befittingly one note as the script he’s memorized. Likewise for Ye-won, she simply doesn’t register as a victim that we want to root for, despite the nastiness of the initial scenes, which is perhaps the biggest indicator of Cheol-ha’s lack of understanding of cinematic language. I mean after everything we saw Ye-won go through, we should care, but for whatever reason it is, we don’t.
The worst example of bad filmmaking comes in the final scene. Well, the scene that takes place after what we’re led to believe is the final scene. Cheol-ha delivers a last minute twist, which I’m sure was supposed to make viewers realise they need to see the movie again to fully understand what’s been going on. However the twist is so incredulously stupid, that I couldn’t even bring myself to laugh at it, instead letting out a completely involuntary groan of discontent. If you’re going to end your movie with a twist, you at least owe it to the audience, as an absolute bare minimum, to ensure that it makes sense. As it is, not only does the twist have more holes than an old pair of socks, but it also removes it even further away from horror territory than it already was. In this regard, Insane is exactly what it says on the box, and as such, it would be best if it’s locked up far out of sight from public viewing.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3/10