Moon Sung-Geun [문성근], Chu Ja-Hyeon [추자현], Jeon Se-Hong [전세홍], Oh Seong-Su [오성수], Nam Mun-Cheol [남문철]
Kim Sung-Hong [김성홍]
Kim Young-Ok [김영옥]
Suddenly losing contact with her sister Hyeon-Ah (Jeon Se-Hong), Hyeon-Jung (Chu Ja-Hyeon) uses her cellphone’s GPS tracing system to find her whereabouts, leading to a strange residence up the hills of a small countryside village, once housing a traditional poultry restaurant. Little does she know that what she is looking for had just spent ten interminable, terrible days inside a cage, enduring the emotional and physical torture of what is clearly not just a middle-aged farmer selling eggs down the street….
I don’t even recall the last time a film moved me to head to the dusty, labyrinthine (?) shelves of my basement, housing all the books which marked my years as a student, or anything I can’t be arsed to read anymore, lest it could remind me of how much money I spent on books that rarely stimulated my inner scribe mojo. Up until the time when the Internet world stopped moving at 28.8kps and before annals were digitalized, that would generally be the role played by sageuk, pricking the history buff in me to investigate whether what I had just seen actually happened, or it was complete baloney. Obviously, most of the time it was the latter. But it happened again yesterday, strangely enough after watching Kim Sung-Hong’s latest venture into the Korean thriller genre, 실종 (Missing). Said book was neither a dissertation on why Hitch couldn’t get his double bass on a train, nor anything delving into the Christian imagery seen in most of Maestro Park’s brilliant body of work. It was William Ryan’s 1970s masterpiece Blaming the Victim.
Why, you’d ask. The answer is to be found in my (partial) fascination with this little film and the themes it covers, thematic vessels of what is as much of an interesting misfire as it is a very explicit sign of how much director Kim has matured over the years. Or should I call it minimizing his shortcomings into slightly more acceptable parts of a larger whole? Ryan’s seminal work, in short, challenged the assumptions and denial ingrained in the American psyche in regards to victimization, his revolutionary theories pioneering a new term, victim blaming. That is, the assumption that victims could be partially, or completely responsible for anything befalling them, be it rape, discrimination or other assorted crimes. First born as a critical retort on the racist denial shown by the Moynihan Report, Ryan’s victim blaming started encompassing just about the entire scale of victimization, down to perhaps the most overused and popular of them all, that “even a blind man could see the polka dots on her panties, so it’s natural she would get raped”-type lingo.
Call it a spoiler if you will, but this film’s final few shots and the very last line of dialogue, depending on which side of the fence you are, could be interpreted as either the kind of delusional finger pointing Ryan criticized, or an affectionate (?) warning against such social mores. So yes, if you’re pretty and wear clothes further highlighting the remarkable combination of mama and papa’s genes, a psychopath serial killer raising chickens for fun might be waiting behind the corner, ready to pulverize your bones inside a huge ass meat grinder. Or something to that extent. Careful, ladies.
My first reaction, were I an hardcore feminist, would be to throw voluminous objects at the screen in a raged frenzy against such chauvinist tomfoolery. And such reaction wouldn’t be so preposterous, if a tad extreme. Despite all the clues pointing at this being more of a kind of perverse social commentary than simple torture porn garbage, you always get the feeling that this film is all too happy to balance the “horror” with somewhat sleazy and traditional canons of exploitation. You watch “that scene” from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and the message will be driven home, whether you like it or not. But here…. hmmm. It at times feels like a further bastardization of the 完全なる飼育 (The Perfect Education) series, sans the Stockholm syndrome meets softcore porn sensibilities. Cream used as lubricant for non-consensual sex one of the chief culprits.
Take a look at this strange village which Missing’s male characters populate, and you’ll question whether Kim Ki-Duk (at least his pre-festival appeal version) had a hidden twin brother. You get the aforementioned serial killer interested in poultry farming and trot, his slightly more compassionate neighbor (who at least proposes remuneration for his lascivious shenanigans), and old farts down the street confabulating on the merits of the coffee shop lady’s choice of underwear. Even the inept policeman who tries to help the protagonist find who’s missing merely does so out of platonic infatuation. Something should click up above the eyes, after looking at this curious array of misfits: the director is trying to prove a point, sacrificing his characters for the sake of thematic consciousness. That is, since the focus is exactly those sleazy, despicable men’s victims — and the film does a decent job of showing things from their perspective — there is no need to ask questions, no particular reason to delve into this psychopath’s past, if not for a few hints (narcissism, a serious complex of inferiority and a general allergy to women, because the last one – he loved? – abandoned him).
This no-bullshit, almost cinema verité approach to such genre tropes is one of the strange charms of this film, if you can stomach the explicit gore, the slightly malicious and a tad voyeuristic sex-related scenes and the assorted cruelties populating this baby. Saw moved to the victims’ perspective as well, but Missing is a little smarter, particularly as it transitions to its second act. Whereas the first part deals with Hyeon-Ah’s terrible experience at the hands of Pan-Gon, the second focuses on her sister Hyeon-Jung’s craving for revenge, the desire to make her assailant pay for what he did, emphatically reversing the cards in the final act. Desire is quite an important element, because (along with gore) it is one of the most core traits which accompanied director Kim’s curious career ever since his debut. Curious because few people would suspect a writer of mainstream romcoms would turn into a director specializing in over the top thriller flicks.
Kim’s calling card to Chungmuro fame was his long-standing partnership with director Kang Woo-Suk, long before Cinema Service ever started. He wrote the script for 1988’s 달콤한 신부들 (Sweet Brides), the 1989 hit 행복은 성적순이 아니잖아요 (Happiness Does Not Come in Grades) with Lee Mi-Yeon, and 1990’s 나는 날마다 일어선다 (I Stand Every Day), not to mention penning the original story of 1991’s 누가 용의 발톱을 보았는가 (Who Saw the Dragon’s Toenails?) and the 1994 Park Joong-Hoon/Choi Jin-Shil cult comedy 마누라 죽이기 (How To Top My Wife). He did try his hand at debuting as director, but the utter failure of his first two projects pushed him back to life as a screenwriter, again working for Kang. It might not have aged incredibly well, but 1993’s phenomenal success 투캅스 (Two Cops) is one of the “lesser evils” Kang directed, and one of Kim’s finest scripts. But he eventually had to debut at the helm sooner or later, particularly considering how the industry was changing — from a director-centric medium to an excuse for Chaebol to fill their blank VHS tapes with content, hence the explosion of new faces in Chungmuro between 1992 and 1995.
And here’s where our connection with desire, anger, gore and psychopaths begins. If his moody 1994 debut 손톱 (Deep Scratch) was about the anger and complex of inferiority shown by a woman in her quest for revenge, 1998’s 올가미 (The Hole) was like a reversal of quintessential 1960s horror cliches such as the evil mother-in-law, by putting the spotlight on her over-possessive behavior to a deliriously over the top (and somewhat fascinating) extent. The stage moved to black comedy in 1999 with 신장개업 (The Grand Opening), about a new Chinese restaurant in town attracting the envy and vengeful attention of its rivals for supposedly using human flesh in their sauce. And, last but not least, Park Joong-Hoon’s dubious turn as a (guess what) psychopath who couldn’t tolerate a couple’s sugary happiness in the maligned 세이예스 (Say Yes). Save for the 2004 fiasco 스턴트맨 (Stunt Man), which went belly up after completing 80% of its shoot and running into funding and distribution problems, most of Kim Sung-Hong’s main characters have been psychological cripples moved by strong desires, and with terrible repercussions for those on the receiving end. Missing is no different.
Yet, and here’s the key behind Kim’s evolution, this time we don’t get a straightforward genre flick. Shot raw, unplugged, almost documentary-style, Missing delves into the horror of confinement and blind lust for revenge in very explicit ways up to its barebones denouement. In a way it’s a shame (and one of the film’s biggest limitations) that the message takes over so strongly that it even upstages any characterization, but those are the traps being obsessed with thematic consciousness will force you into, unless you’re a Lee Chang-Dong or Park Chan-Wook type (people whose works almost always end up becoming morality plays, yet at the same time retaining strong characterization within). Then again, it’s about time filmmakers’ obsession with the complexities of the human mind is thrown in the bucket of oblivion, to finally focus on realism. Pan-Gon doesn’t eat liver with Chianti nor does he decries the seven capital sins while cleverly completing his masterful murders. No, he’s just a sad old man looking like a normal ajeosshi down the street, until his machete and meat grinder become the means of his punishing rage.
But that’s the point. Most psychopaths are most likely not misunderstood geniuses drawn to insanity, or refined intellectuals with a devilish thirst for blood. As a proof of this, Missing’s release ended up being postponed for months for a pretty peculiar (and in some ways frightening) reason: reality once again had become stranger than fiction. A man named Kang Ho-Sun killed and buried a half dozen women in the paddy fields of his house in Suwon, all because of the death of his wife in a fire. Despair led to anger against women, and that anger turned into madness. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a quite refreshing sight to see Korean thrillers — starting with that triumph of filmmaking know as 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) — throw out all the limitations of this genre to focus on more realistic issues and portrayals, as recently shown by 추격자 (The Chaser). Missing is quite certainly a few notches below such quality works, and its warts and somewhat suspect overall message hurt the proceedings in a significant way. Yet, the strong acting (particularly a deliciously sleazy Moon Sung-Geun and a very fierce Chu Ja-Hyeon, who keeps improving at an impressive pace) and refreshingly realistic approach to what have become conventional genre tropes is another very strong sign that Korean thriller has found its own voice, and it’s here to stay…