A deaf mother and daughter interrupt a serial psychopath as he attempts to claim his next victim, only to finds his wrath redirected toward them instead.
Ever since Netflix’s Squid Game topped the streaming charts, there’s been unprecedented interest in South Korean media, so Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Midnight / 미드나이트 couldn’t come at a better time for debuting filmmaker Oh-seung Kwon, especially as it stars Squid Game’s own Wi Ha-jun. The promotional material makes much of his presence and describes the film as a ‘nail-biter’, which is perfectly apt for this fast-paced tightly plotted psycho-killer thriller.
Midnight tells the stories of its five central characters as their destinies entangle over a few hours, from the end of the working day to, well, midnight, one presumes. This superior example of the stalk-and-slash sub-genre opens with a preview of how badly things might play out. There’s no mystery element here. We know whodunnit from the opening scene, as we join Do-shik (Wi Ha-jun) between kills as he curb-crawls a lone woman, offering a lift to the main road in his sinister black van.
She refuses, of course, but as she walks away is given cause to pause on hearing the van door slide open and a voice calling for help. An injured man can be seen slumped in the back of the vehicle and, believing it to be the driver she returns to check. She’s half right. The voice calling for help had been the driver’s, but the man she sees in the back of the van is worse than injured. She’s fallen for a trap designed to exploit her good nature with deadly consequences.
Midnight’s serial killer is in the charismatic mould of the likes of Ted Bundy— the real-life murderer who convinced investigators of his innocence, on more than one occasion, through his faux sincerity and personable nature. Here, Do-shik dumps the mutilated bodies and waits for the police, pretending to be a deeply traumatised witness to the brutal robbery of a young couple. He blames a gang of immigrant workers armed with knives. He’s too readily believed, thus underscoring the innate racial prejudice of the officers. For him, the thrill is not necessarily the kill but the game of deceiving and manipulating others with convincing lies.
Immediately, one gets the feeling he’s killed many times before and has escalated to the point that he’s prepared to take ridiculous risks, making him more dangerous than ever. It’s unclear whether he genuinely feels invincible, or if he knows that the time will soon come when he crosses someone with the guts to stop him. This is a familiar trope of the genre, perhaps best exemplified by Rutger Hauer’s unstoppable psycho in The Hitcher (1986), but Wi Ha-jun plays it entirely differently, oscillating from almost vulnerable, through cocky, to infuriatingly arrogant… and then on to calculating killer. It’s a fine, multi-layered, and apparently well-researched, role that Wi Ha-jun puts his all into, though he reputedly found the darker aspects “burdensome.”
Strong as his performance is, it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the small, more than capable cast, who all step-up to the mark. His next victim would be So Jung (Kim Hye-yoon), but he’s distracted part-way through his process and she manages to escape, albeit after sustaining life-threatening injuries. This is when things get complicated, and the plot becomes cleverly contrived. Thankfully, director Oh-Seung Kwon doesn’t stick to a wholly realistic treatment of his own screenplay. That would’ve been too grim and harrowing. Instead, he keeps things interesting and exciting with plenty of twists and surprises that dovetail into a solid narrative.
In the first act, Oh-Seung Kwon uses self-contained vignettes to efficiently establish the characters and their dynamics. There’s So Jung and her older, over-protective brother, Jong Tak (Park Hoon), a private security guard who knows how to handle himself. We learn he’s been raising his little sister since the death of their parents and is having trouble getting used to her being a young woman. They have a robust exchange about her freedoms that sketches out their conflicted, yet deeply caring attitudes to each other. We glimpse his softer side and her cheeky nature but, being the ‘man of the house’, he still has the upper hand refusing to let her leave the house until she changes her miniskirt for shorts.
Later, he realises something’s wrong when his sister abruptly stops texting, and he has an idea where she might be. There are several ingenious plot points that rely on the use of mobile phones, which is most refreshing as so many other thrillers quickly dispose of the devices or there’s no charge or bars when needed the most. And we now have a time-limit to inexorably pile on the tension—will So Jung be found before she dies from blood loss?
We also meet Kyung Mi (Ki-joo Jin) and her mother (Gil Hae-yeon), both profoundly hearing-impaired, whose apartment is rigged with some neat sound-sensing tech that responds to noise with flashing lights indicating direction and intensity—which will be put to very good use in one of the film’s more intense set-pieces. Jin Ki-joo carries the lead exceptionally well in what will be a career-defining performance. She’s clearly an accomplished actress, so it comes as a surprise to learn this is only her second feature since her debut in the well-received Little Forest (2018). This may well have something to do with the South Korean cinema industry, which is still finding its feet after tumultuous beginnings under Japanese occupation and then suffering some of the strictest state censorship in the world during the seventies. The so-called ‘New Korean Cinema’ began its rise about twenty years ago and only recently attracts any serious investment and international attention.
So, Jin Ki-joo has kept busy, racking-up hundreds of the small screen appearances. Since transitioning from modelling in 2015, she’s starred in several long-running television series, and won four prestigious awards. Her casting opposite Wi Ha-jun, along with a slick script, ensured that Midnight performed impressively in the domestic market when it was released theatrically last year and via streaming services, simultaneously.
She’s totally convincing and must’ve been dedicated to learning not only the sign-language, but the body language of the deaf as the actress is no more hearing-impaired than Wi Ha-jun is a serial killer. She wears her 33 years lightly and this helps her seem so vulnerable. This along with her perceived disability wrong-foots the killer, and perhaps the audience, into assuming Kyung Mi will be an easy target. It certainly leads to her ‘witness statement’ being taken less seriously by the authorities and brings out the prejudices of bystanders who assume she’s mentally impaired because she cannot speak clearly.
Apart from lip-reading allowing our protagonists to know what’s being said from afar, or in a noisy place, Oh-seung Kwon resists the temptation to turn a lack of hearing into a superpower. The women’s empowerment comes instead from their ingenuity and resilience. Generally, the impairment works to Do-shik’s advantage more than Kyung Mi’s and in one, particularly nail-biting sequence, she thinks escape is near but is unaware of the loud squealing of metal on metal giving away her exact location as she slowly slides a door bolt.
Appropriately, much attention has been given to the sound design by Lee Gang-hui throughout. Sequences involving the mother and daughter are often completely silent, but the sudden cut to sound make for several effective jump-scares. This works well in tandem with the sparse and suitably atmospheric score by Hwang Sang-jun that stealthily creeps in when needed.
The mother-daughter relationship is beautifully and economically delineated as they try to save each other by combining their courage in extremis. There’s real emotional depth that draws the viewer into their increasingly claustrophobic world, despite much of the action taking place outdoors on the night streets. Gil Hae-yeon is also completely believable, as would be expected from a seasoned actress who’s played mothers quite a few times in her 30 feature appearances and more than a dozen television series. Here, though, the roles reverse as the narrative unfolds and the daughter has to use her wits look out for the mother.
Much of the suspense relies on the audience knowing who the bad guy is right from the get-go and squirming as he hides in plain sight or sweet-talks his way out of suspicion. His grinning bravado becomes increasingly infuriating while his motivations remain frustratingly obscure. This makes him all the more chilling and unpredictable. He seems to have some issues to do with families, though these aren’t fully explored, except he’s compelled to repeat the terms ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘mother’ when he hears them. He also appears to target victims that have someone who cares enough for them to risk their own life in a rescue attempt, thus becoming ensnared in his cunning trap as well. It’s definitely a game to him as he clearly enjoys playing one person against another and sadistically messing with their emotions.
It’s not in your face, but if you want to delve beyond the surface, which is exciting enough, there are volumes of subtext to consider. I suppose much of the meaning would be culturally specific and may not speak to western viewers as it would to a domestic Korean audience but there are some core themes that are, sadly, universal. Right at the fore, is a plot that explores and exploits gradients of power that are presumed due to age, class, and gender.
On the night streets of Seoul, unaccompanied women don’t enjoy the same freedoms as men to walk the streets after dark without fear of being harassed, or worse. What they may say isn’t readily believed without evidence and if a man contradicts them, his version is always more convincing to those in authority. It’s not just gender differences but age and class too. For example, in one pivotal scene, when police intervene in a bloody altercation between an agitated male in casual clothes and his smartly dressed, middle-class advisory, prejudice leads to them restraining the wrong man.
There’s another interesting scene in the police station when a drunk (Lee Jang Yoo) sleeping it off in the waiting room picks a fight with Do-shik. He either reads something in the villain’s demeanour or perhaps he’s witnessed something incriminating whilst staggering home from bars after dark. Of course, he doesn’t fit the respectable citizen stereotype and so the officers bundle the ‘mad old guy’ out of the station. It’s a brief though energetic cameo by Lee Jang Yoo, a seasoned South Korean character actor who, despite more than 30 feature film appearances, barely gets a mention on English-language media.
In some ways, the story has the archetypal elements of a coming-of-age story with some nice fairy tale symbolism involving shoes. But instead of a prince charming coming to the rescue, it’s another young woman who finds a reserve of courage to heroically intervene. This key scene plays out partly in a super-saturated monochromatic red. I’m sure it’s an intentional nod to classic Italian horror and the giallo—progenitor of the stalk-and-slash genre. So, of course, the psychological subtext of the red shoes in Tenebrae (1982) come to mind for anyone familiar with Dario Argento’s classic. Here, though, the shoes are white and only appear to be red when lit by the neon light. The owner of the shoes started the night an innocent, but that brutally changed when she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some of the scenes may come across as a little heavy-handed and push things beyond easy believability at times, but they also keep the plot moving. If anything, such exaggeration only helps the audience to share the characters’ incredulity as they are ignored by passers-by, disbelieved by police, and watch a known killer walk free, realising no one else will intervene to protect them. Besides, if the police had responded responsibly, the film would’ve been a lot shorter and less satisfying. As it is, Midnight is a very enjoyable thriller and an audacious calling-card for Oh-seung Kwon—a writer-director with exciting potential.
SOUTH KOREA | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | KOREAN
writer & director: Kwon Oh-seung.
starring: Jin Ki-joo, Wi Ha-jun, Park Hoon, Gil Hae-yeon, Kim Hye-yoon.