South Korean cinema has been consistently producing stellar films for years. Recently, the highlight has been the Academy Award winning Parasite, but we’ve also been given Train to Busan, Zombie For Sale, and The Villainess to name just a few. This year’s offering of great Korean cinema is taunt thriller Midnight. The story sees a young deaf woman, Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo), and her mother battle with a serial killer, Do-sik (Wi Ha-jun), after they accidentally interrupt one of his kills. A deadly game of cat and mouse then plays out across the city as the women try to stay one step ahead of their pursuer.
Writer and director Kwon Oh-Seung makes some interesting narrative decisions with Midnight. The biggest of these is the choice to let the audience in on the identity of the killer immediately. There’s a parallel narrative that could have unfolded for which the viewer would be kept guessing which of the people around the women are the monster, but here we know from the opening moments Do-sik is the murderer. It’s a move that misses out the tension of not knowing, but it quickly transpires that this angle is far more conducive to sweaty palms and seat squirming as the viewer witnesses Do-sik circling his prey. Following their initial altercation, during which Do-sik’s identity is obscured by a cap and facemask, the women find themselves trapped in a police station, although completely unaware of the danger they are in. As these scenes play out, the viewer is whipped into a state of feverish intensity as they watch Do-sik circle his prey. You’ll be screaming at your screen for them to keep their distance from him, but they won’t hear the noise as firstly it’s only a film, and secondly, they are deaf. Often an omniscient viewpoint relieves the tension, however Kwon Oh-seung wields it differently, turning the tables on the audience and giving them a much more traumatic view of events.
Placing the killer amongst his prey without them realising is a savvy idea that works. Do-sik does not have the appearance or demeanour of stereotypical movie serial killers. He’s young, confident, cunning and handsome, all qualities that enable him to continue his dastardly deeds. At more than one point during the film he manages to convincingly play the part of being innocent better than that of his actual victims, leading to a lot of trouble. In a strange way, the idea offers an example of what a film such as Scream would look like if we knew on first watch who were behind those Ghostface masks. As well as being an intriguing plot device, it also passes judgement about how the most powerful voice to many institutions is that of a young and attractive male. The statements from the women and older men are all disregarded in favour of believing in a handsome smiling face.
Midnight starts off incredibly well with the aforementioned police station sequences being the nerve-shredding peak. After this ordeal, Do-sik follows the women back to their homes at which point we get another impressive run. However, not long after this, Midnight begins to run out of steam, with some of the chases starting to feel repetitive. The ending section could benefit from some finessing, Midnight becomes a classic example of a story unsure of how to end itself, and so it attempts it several times. As the aborted endings mount up, some clock watching creeps in. This wobbly conclusion doesn’t spoil the good work that has come before, but it does mean that the film goes out with a whimper rather than mirroring its explosive opening.
Technically, Kwon Oh-seung matches his clever scriptwork with some snazzy visuals and blistering sound design. Set exclusively overnight, the first-time director lets the lights of the city shine and as they bathe our cast in reds, yellows, greens and neon, Midnight earns itself some points for style. The camerawork is dynamic, shifting speeds from run to standstill as it follows Do-sik as he pursues his victims, and then zooming and pulling in and out of people’s faces as we move from one side of the chase to another. With the sound design Kwon Oh-seung forces the watcher through an aural journey, sound muffling and then suddenly getting loud as they are drawn into and out of the mind of Kyung-mi. The technique reinforces the omniscience of the piece and helps immerse viewers into the world perfectly. On a score front, Kwon Oh-seung uses music the whole way through, using it to act as a conduit for Kyung-mi’s voice.
Solid, skillfully electric, and an exciting debut, Midnight is yet more proof (if you needed it) that South Korea has the most inventive and thrilling filmmakers working today. Kwon Oh-seung’s feature film debut bursts onto the genre circuit and commands immediate attention. Cleverly constructed with some inventive ideas, Midnight is an electric game of cat and mouse that will leave you with your heart in your throat.
This review first appeared on THN.