As was the case for many western viewers, South Korean cinema was something I discovered in the early ’00s. For a few years afterwards, I tried to immerse myself in films coming out of Korea, keeping up with contemporary releases that made it to the UK, importing other titles that didn’t make the jump but looked interesting, as well as trying to look back, at least a few years, to the late 1990s and the beginnings of what was being called a South-Korean new wave. I have to confess that since then, some key titles apart, I’ve only intermittently kept up with the scene, and am yet to dig into any of their TV dramas, including Squid Game, with which Midnight shares actor Wi Ha-Jun.
In first time director Kwon Oh-Seung’s thriller, largely set across a single night, Wi plays Do-sik, a young man who is also the serial killer that has been prowling his neighbourhood. Searching for victims, he finds not one, but two. So-jung (Kim Hye-Yoon) is just looking for a fun night out, away from her controlling brother Jong-Tak (Park Hoon). Having captured her, Do-sik also spots Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) and, realising that she’s deaf, marks her out as an easy target. However Kyung-mi and her mother (Kil Hae-yeon), who is also deaf, proves a more resilient target than expected and a chase across the city ensues, with Do-sik pursued by an angry Jong-tak, as his would be victims try to escape.
It can’t be denied that Kwon Oh-seung gives Midnight a certain propulsive energy. Much of the film is a tense mix of chase sequence and hide and seek game as Do-sik continually seeks out Kyung-mi. There’s always a sense that danger could be lurking anywhere around her, thanks to her deafness. This leads to some strong set pieces. Early on, Kyung-mi ducks into a garage and tries to escape through a door with a sliding metal bolt. As steel scrapes against steel, we’re aware that she doesn’t know how much noise she is making, and just how completely she’s giving her location away. Later, in one of the film’s best scenes, Kwon exploits her inability to hear what is being said as her would be killer uses his other victim as a bargaining chip. These and all the rest of the sequences are stylishly shot by Kwon. The opening sequence lighting Do-sik in the red and blue of a Police car is especially striking, as is the last shot before a brief coda, pulling out over the dark city; a single street lit up like a beacon cutting through it.
While individual sequences work well, the film as a whole isn’t quite the sum of those parts. The conceit itself is sometime reminiscent of (a less sleazy and clearly better made) Eyes of a Stranger, which featured a young Jennifer Jason Leigh as a deaf, blind, mute girl also pursued by a serial killer. Kwon’s screenplay has to jump through a lot of implausible hoops to have the characters find each other over and over again, while also making everyone other than the main characters seem either stupid or wilfully blind. On the whole, it’s also repetitive, with Kyung-mi over and over again seeming to ignore chances to take, shall we say, more definitive action. It’s tough, given the language barrier, to know how authentic hearing actress Jin Ki-joo is as the deaf Kyung-mi, but the performance feels very broad, especially when she is trying to speak. Wi Ha-jun is appropriately chilling, but also rather one note as Do-sik, but Park Hoon has a little more range to play as Jong-tak, and probably emerges as the most engaging character, if only because he develops the most.
Midnight is very much a debut. As a calling card for Kwon it’s got style by the bucketload, and enough strong sequences to show that he can marshal both action and suspense. I’m interested in seeing whatever he does next. That said, it’s never as satisfying as a whole as it is in its best moments. It’s a little long, goes back over the same ground a few times too often, and doesn’t involve you in the characters enough to truly grip.
Midnight is a brand new, digitally shot film. The blu ray image is totally clean. Colours appear true to the film’s design and there are no particular defects to point out. The subtitles also seem accurate; they’re easy to read and there are no notably awkward translations.
Perhaps not as packed as some of the Eureka discs I’ve seen, Midnight still boasts a couple of worthwhile extras. The first 2000 copies come with a booklet (not provided for review) with new writing from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Travis Stevens’ 22 minute video essay on Korean horror cinema looks back to the mid 60s in its survey of the genre to contextualise what came before the ‘new wave’, before moving on to look briefly at the contemporary scene. It’s a shame the early films are only represented through posters and stills, while we watch the beginning of Midnight. The two aren’t especially well matched, but the essay is well worth listening to, with a notepad on hand to make a watchlist.#
There is also a commentary from critic Kat Ellinger, I’ve only had time to sample it, but Ellinger discusses the film itself, serial killers, the genre, and the subtext around it. Clearly she’s much more enthusiastic about the film than I found myself, and this will be an interesting listen if you too got a bit more out of it.