Next Door (옆집사람, Yeom Ji-ho, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

How much do you know about what’s going on with your neighbours? Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) thinks he knows quite a bit because they never seem to stop arguing and the walls in this building are surprisingly thin, but as it turns out he didn’t really know very much at all nor to be honest did he really care. Yeom Ji-ho’s graduate film Next Door (옆집사람, Yeop Jib Salam) is a tense mystery farce in which an aspiring detective tries to investigate his way out of trouble and somehow ends up coming out on top almost despite himself.

Chan-woo has been unsuccessfully studying for the police exam for the last five years and hopes that his run of miserable failure is about to come to an end, that is as long as he can get himself together to submit the application by 6pm the following day. One of the many problems with that is that Chan-woo has a cashflow problem and there’s not enough in his account to pay the fee so he has to ring a friend who agrees to lend him money but only if he comes out for a drink. Reluctantly agreeing, Chan-woo fails to correct his friends when they assume he’s already passed the test and become a policeman only to get blackout drunk and create some kind of disturbance before waking up in an unfamiliar environment next to what seems to be a corpse surrounded by blood. After a few moments of confusion, Chan-woo realises he must have crawled in next-door in a drunken stupor and returns to his own apartment but discovers that he’s left his phone behind which is inconvenient in itself but especially as it’s now evidence that he was present at a crime scene which won’t look good on his police application form. 

To be honest, Chan-woo is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s not until he’s been in the apartment, where he is trapped because the hallway is currently full of religious proselytisers, for some time that he remembers about fingerprints and DNA while deciding to do some investigating to figure out what might have been going on the previous evening. His friend’s messages suggest he has a history of becoming violent and aggressive while drunk and may have gotten into some kind of altercation all of which has him worried that he actually might have been involved in the corpse’s demise. 

Meanwhile all he ever did was complain about the noisy woman in 404 who was frequently heard arguing with a man. As an aspiring policeman perhaps he should have checked in on her to make sure she hadn’t become a victim of domestic violence rather than blaming his neighbours for his poor performance. To begin with, he assumes the body must be that of the woman’s boyfriend, but also makes a series of sexist assumptions while looking around the apartment and finding evidence that the person who lived there was a tech wiz immediately assuming that all the computer equipment must belong to the boyfriend. Similarly he decides the girl is probably an airhead after finding photos of her on the corpse’s phone because she is pretty and fashionable. When she finally turns up with bin bags and cleaning supplies, Hyun-min (Choi Hee-jin) first challenges Chan-woo on discovering him hiding in her closet but then changes her tune to appeal to Chan-woo’s vanity playing the helpless young woman looking to him for protection and in effect welding his sexism against him. 

His desire to play the hero may be behind his intention to become a police officer but then he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself. On discovering the body, we see him raid a piggy bank and pocket a note from the corpse’s wallet to solve his financial problems before thinking better of it and putting everything back where it belongs. He agrees to help Hyun-min deal with the body partly to protect her and partly to protect himself from his proximity to the crime all while trying to make sure he gets back to his own apartment to send the application form before the deadline. Even the landlady eventually offers him a discount on his rent in return for keeping quiet so the murder in the building won’t affect her business. “They were terrible people” he tells her when she repeats a rumour that Hyun-min got into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over money which might not be completely unfair even though he knows the rumour isn’t true and is not entirely blameless himself. A masterclass in blocking and production design, Yeom’s deliciously dark farce suggests it might be worth keeping a better eye on your neighbours in all senses of the term. 


Next Door screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Jung Byung-gil, 2012)

Confession of murder posterThe UK does not have a statute of limitations for criminal cases, only for civil ones, so if you want to be certain you’ve got away with murder you’ll need to wait until the very end and offer only a deathbed confession. In Korea, however, the statute of limitations on murder is (or was, at least, in 2012) 15 years so after that time you can even go on TV and tell everyone you’re a serial killer and all that will happen is that you’ll suddenly become a media darling beloved by a hundred giddy schools. Such is the premise behind Jung Byung-gil’s complicated mystery thriller Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다, Naega Salinbeomida) in which a grizzled detective and the bereaved relatives try to cope with their guilt and desire for revenge by enacting their own kind of justice on a self-confessed serial killer.

15 years ago, Detective Choi (Jung Jae-young) let a serial killer get away with only a scar on his cheek and the killer’s promise of reunion to show for it. 10 women are dead and Choi’s own fiancée missing presumed among the victims, and with the statute of limitations about to expire it appears that the killer will get away with his heinous crimes having successfully outlived justice. On the day the killer is officially off the hook, one of the victim’s sons commits suicide, further adding to Choi’s sense of inadequacy in being unable to bring the killer to justice within the time limit.

Two years on from the limitation passing, a handsome young man steps into the limelight with a book called “Confession of Murder” which claims to be an exposé on his reign of killing. Lee (Park Si-hoo) with his pop idol good looks and suave manner quickly becomes a media sensation despite the discomfort of some that he is profiting from the deaths of his innocent victims whom he has also robbed of justice even if he claims to be remorseful and to have reformed. Detective Choi has his doubts about the killer’s account and particularly about the possible 11th victim whose body has never been found.

Aside from the intrigue surrounding the true identity of the killer (or killers), Confession of Murder has a few difficult questions to ask about the nature of fame and the cult of celebrity. Lee has just confessed to a brutal series of unsolved killings of women, but thanks to his boy band good looks and impressive media marketing campaign he’s already amassed a fan club of adoring young girls including three rowdy high schoolers we first meet in Choi’s prison cells. Having escaped justice, Lee feels secure enough in his legal protections to crow not only about his crimes but in having gotten away with them so skilfully. His book becomes a best seller and his TV appearances hotly anticipated even if the fascination behind them maybe more ghoulish than intellectual or steeped in admiration.

What Lee exposes is a set of judicial double standards in which a man who has not paid for crimes he freely admits committing can be allowed to remain free and even use those same crimes to build a new life for himself by exploiting them for financial and social gains. The families of the bereaved, denied justice, seek their own – as does Choi even if he does it as a serving law enforcement officer. The lines between justice and revenge become ever blurred as the killer subverts the protections of the law as weapons against those who would seek to see that his crimes are properly served by it.

Meanwhile, Jung veers wildly between taught psychological thriller and absurd action drama in which an attempt to kidnap the killer is made by throwing poisonous snakes at him and then stealing him away in a fake ambulance which soon gives way to a lengthy motorway chase. The action sequences, often unexpected, are brilliantly choreographed set pieces of frenzied attack and retreat in which the outcome is perpetually uncertain. Uncertainty is certainly something Jung is adept at using as his narrative becomes ever more convoluted and intentions increasingly cloudy.

As much fun as it all is, Confession of Murder also has its degrees of poignancy in insisting on a need to deal with the unresolved past head on. Buried truths begin to fester and no amount of wilful forgetting will cure them, only the truth will do. Detective Choi faces a serious dilemma when faced with the limitations of a system to which he has devoted his life and which has already taken so much from him. If he transgresses, he will be judged by that same system but the judgement itself will also be a kind of affirmation that justice has finally been done and the case firmly closed.


Original trailer (English subtitles)