Despite going head-to-head against the unstoppable "Snowpiercer", Kim Byeong-woo's "The Terror Live" held its own at the Korean box office last August where it eventually amassed over 5 million admissions. As Bong's futuristic extravaganza was absorbing the limelight, Kim's third feature was quietly causing a stir of its own and helped secure the South's most successful year in film history.
The film itself is a one-man show starring Ha Jung-woo (a dynamic talent who has been involved in hits such as "The Berlin File", "Nameless Gangster, and "The Chaser") who grabs and holds the camera's gaze for most of the film as he attempts to negotiate the destructive wills of a bomb-blasting terrorist. Ha's character Yoon Yeong-hwa, a disgraced news anchor turned radio host, has his show hijacked by a persistent caller who sets off a bomb on Seoul's Mapo Bridge. Yoon initially dismisses the man's threats but, after seeing the devastation from his studio window, decides to take advantage by working this exclusive to bump up the network's ratings and hopefully revitalise own career. However Ha's managers and the higher ups have the same idea and desires for promotion, and Ha soon finds himself caught live between the whims of a madman and the self-serving bureaucracy of those in studio.
The film takes places almost exclusively in the radio studio and stares at Ha as he struggles to balance the needs of the mysterious man on the line and those hostages stranded on the bridge the blew up; all while battle the petty politics taking place behind the scenes-perhaps the most corrupting and corrosive agent of them all. There is no racing around the city chasing shadows and choosing which wire to cut, or high octane chase scenes and back alley shootouts; instead, the film imprisons us, like Ha, within the confines of the studio and packs on the pressure through narrative tensions and some praise-worthy acting by Ha himself.
Initially, our hero is a cocksure anchor slouched behind a microphone, but he quickly transforms into the top anchor he once was when things gets heavy. This is where the film really captivates, as although the film is cruelly claustrophobic, director Kim manages to transforms his lead (as well his detailed studio surroundings) in devastating and compelling ways. When Ha gets the word that he will be going on air, both he and the studio are converted into a presentable scene fit for such a newsflash. He looses his sweater and shades, has a shave, grabs a tie and a jacket, and dons a pair of non-prescription specs to look the part in a flash-live ready and eager to jump back in the hot seat. Similarly, waves of technical personal flood his room with wires, microphones and a green screen to get this spectacle ratings-ready. And it's fascinating to watch it all crumble around him and he is stripped bear, abandoned, and shaken from various sources outside and within his little presentational prison.
"The Terror Live" is essentially about one man being torn apart live on air. It is political in its criticism of those in power, and heartfelt insofar as this rat in a cage is constantly being manipulated and lured into corners and away from the cheese that was only ever an amazing fantasy. The film does an excellent job of pilling on the tension, and captures the rising intensity well within its single setting. Ha Jung-woo is accompanied by compelling performances (most notably that of Lee Kyung-young as the station's chief officer), however in this tightly woven piece our antagonist was not fleshed out as much as some may have preferred. Our mysterious trigger-happy caller remains rather one-dimensional, and when contrasted with the dynamic and resilient Ha, the question of balance inevitably arises. Still, "The Terror Live" is about this one man on show to survive, and Kim ultimately pulls the right strings here to arrive at a satisfying finale that Korean thrillers do so convincingly.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from YESASIA
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