My notes on Hyeong-sa (The Vanished) (2018), which has screened at the Fantasia Festival.
A Korean remake of Oriol Paulo’s Spanish mystery-suspense film El Cuerpo (The Body), this plays up the mystery and detection angle – while the original worked harder on an air of possibly supernatural menace. Both movies are rich and satisfying, and I’d not be surprised if an English-language version of the script – by Paulo and Lara Sendim, here adapted by debuting director Lee Chang-hee – eventually turned up … besides a fiendishly involved, satisfying plot, it offers a clutch of terrific roles for stars who like playing fractured, complex folk under extreme stress.
The set-up is that the corpse of Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-ae), an alpha female company boss, disappears from a large morgue on a rainy night – which is especially suspicious since there hasn’t been time to do an autopsy to determine cause of death. Enter Woo Joon-sik (Kim Sang-kyung), a former hotshot homicide cop who has turned into a shambling drunk (for reasons revealed in a later flashback) but still has an eye for a clue – a scratch on the linoleum, missing personal effects – and a nose for a handy prime suspect. Park Jin-han (Kim Kang-woo), Yoon’s chemistry professor trophy husband, is called away from his pregnant young mistress Hye-jin (Han Ji-an) to help Woo with his inquiries, and tries to use his high connections to get the investigation to go away. Early on, it’s revealed that Park poisoned his wife with something new and untraceable … and the cop seems to sense that too, and work away at cracking his composure. However, there’s still a mystery about who stole the body – and even the possibility that Yoon has survived a death-like trance and is now orchestrating the torment of her husband and even targeting his mistress for vengeance.
As he wins the respect of junior officers while alienating his superiors, Woo comes on more and more like an angst-ridden Columbo – though, as with everything here, his sleuthing isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Set over the course of a single rainy night, with flashbacks that really are flashes to illuminate the circumstances that have brought the dead and the dead inside to the morgue, this has a lot of atmosphere, plentiful dark humour and a storyline that embraces ridiculous contrivances in a manner worthy of Cornel Woolrich … but the reason it works so well is that Kim Sang-kyung (from Memories of Murder) Kim Kang-woo (Psychometry) play their contrasting characters — a rambling slob with a steeltrap mind and a control freak spiralling out of control – with such conviction that we can’t help but get wrapped up in their situation. As in the best Columbo shows (and film noir precedents like Double Indemnity, Les Diaboliques or the Bogart vehicle Conflict) the likeable cop has a sadistic side, and the ostensible villain becomes almost sympathetic – especially during a long flashback about his marriage and affair – as the screws are tightened and he starts sweating.