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'Our Town', Haven for a Serial Murderer

2009/03/01 | 594 views | Permalink | Source

A clever thriller cannot quite overcome genre conventions

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

A gruesomely murdered body of a young woman is found hanging from an elementary school gym iron, in the form of a crucifix. Exhausted cop Jae-sin (Lee Sun-kyun) realizes that a serial killer is lurking in his neighborhood: the victims range from an eight-year-old girl to a middle-aged businesswoman. He gets unexpected help from his game designer friend Kyung-joo (musical actor Oh Man-seok, popular from the Korean stage version of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch").

But nothing is what it seems: Kyung-joo drops in a stationary store run by child-like and strangely-named Hyo-yi (Ryu Deok-hwan), and receives a text message that reads: "Sir, I know you are the murderer".

Korean filmmakers tend to have trouble portraying unapologetically evil characters, always making excuses for them in their sad backgrounds (a fate that befell, to be fair, even Hannibal Lecter) or turning them into cartoonish abstractions, a grotesque Pinata calculated to draw the sticks and rocks of class resentment (A typical example is the fund-manager psycho in Kang Woo-seok's "Public Enemy"). There are indeed successful examples of "giallo"-style thrillers with a hard edge among Korean films ("Tell Me Something" comes to mind), but more often than not a serial killer tends to function as a handy symbolic presence for the dehumanizing forces of Korean society.

Seen in this light, "Our Town's" screenplay by Mo Hong-jin shows considerable chutzpah by directly delving into the social psychology of serial killing, putting the killer at the center of the narrative. Likewise, newcomer director Jeong Gil-yeong displays an assured hand in stitching together various strands of narrative and generating suspense without relying on post-production gimmicks or cheap shock tactics. Actually, Jeong's best scenes are those not directly related to the central plot, such as an extremely natural interaction among Jae-sin and other cops filmed in a long take, or a weirdly witty third-person dream sequence about two sisters and a dude with black fingernails.

Both Oh and Lee deliver excellent, restrained performances, the former believably manipulative and conflicted when required and the latter high-strung but never histrionic. Unfortunately, Ryoo, while a talented young actor, is not quite believable. Jeong does not help the matter by making him flip his eyeballs and fairly foam at the mouth in the overcooked climax, which does not quite sink the film but nonetheless brings it a notch and a half down in my estimation. As per recent Korean films, makeup effects, production design (Kim Hye-jin) and cinematography/lighting (Lee Gang-min and Kim Yu-sin) are all first-rate.

"Our Town", even though it ultimately capitulates to the lugubriously Korean-style jeremiads on the decline of communal spirit and the evil effects of money on social relationships, is a rather decent mystery thriller that avoids insulting the viewer's intelligence and manages to hold its own against flashier crowd-pleasers like "Seven Days".

2009 OhmyNews

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