Korean cinema isn’t exactly short of films about cunning, merciless serial killers and vengeance-seeking cops or heroines, but this drama from writer-director Mo Hong-jin delivers enough complications and emotional punches to distinguish it in its thriving sub-genre. In a prologue, a cadaverous young man – Kim Ki-bum (Kim Sung-oh, taking the full Christian Bale weight-loss program) – is convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, thanks to testimony from an informer, but not of the six other killings the police think he’s guilty of. One recent victim is a popular policeman, who staggered home with a cut throat and died in front of his six-year-old daughter Hee-joo, who put a party hat on his corpse and tried to feed him birthday cake.
Fifteen years later, Kim gets out of jail with several pressing concerns – including tracking down that informer – while being persecuted by Dae-young (Yoon Je-moon), the dead cop’s best friend and successor, and stalked by Hee-joo (Shim Eun-kyung), who has grown up to be the much-loved mascot of the local police station and a familiar figure doing odd jobs and charitable works (including knitting scarves) around town. She has practiced being a stalker by keeping track of her estranged mother – who is being abused by her second husband, an alcoholic gambler. This complex situation actually features two serial killers – technically, three – with a mid-film possibility that the obvious villain might not be guilty of every single crime he’s blamed for, though he does a low-rent Lecter escape that confirms his bloody-faced murderousness.
On its home turf, this was noticed as a change of pace for young star Shim, who is known for pixieish comedy-romance roles (Sunny, Miss Granny) and here modifies her image by taking her spacey, cute persona into very dark areas. The cops who treat Hee-joo as a pet don’t see the obsessive who post-its Nietzsche quotes to the wall of her father’s old study, while plastering the floor with crime scene photos and clippings as she lays her complicated vengeance plan – which includes a practice run on her appalling but inept stepfather before she goes after her real target. Without much dialogue (some characters take her for a mute), Shim manages a complex, interestingly fractured characterisation – she’s even quite scary at a few turns, though co-star Kim goes overboard in making her quarry a human monster.
K-krimis don’t always stick to the Hollywood happy ending convention, so there’s always the possibility that this will wind up tragically for all concerned – and the last reel may well lose many audiences – but the pieces here fall in place effectively. There’s a cynical streak in that the motor of the plot is the comical ineptitude of well-intentioned cops – after a couple of murders have been committed while the surveillance detail were asleep, the police chief goes round a room abusing his juniors and kicking their shins – which leaves space for the killer and the avenger to work out their respective plans.