Midnight (미드나이트, Kwon Oh-seung, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Turns out, if you want to get away with murder in South Korea all you need to do is remain polite, put on a regular business suit, and carry a fancy briefcase. Three women find themselves pursued by the walking embodiment of destructive patriarchy in Kwon Oh-seung’s extraordinarily tense serial killer thriller Midnight (미드나이트) in which a creepy night stalker exploits male privilege and societal prejudice while relentlessly pursuing his prey through the darkened streets of Seoul. 

Our heroine, Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo), is a deaf woman working as a customer service representative for the “Care for You” call centre catering to callers who require sign language assistance. The company, however, is not especially caring and makes little effort to include Kyung-mi in office life, leaving her feeling left out and excluded. She attempts to bring this up with her boss when some of the other women complain about being forced to attend an after hours drinking party to entertain clients, but is greeted only with grudging acceptance. At the dinner, meanwhile, the boorish male guests make lewd comments about her appearance assuming she can’t hear them, though she can of course lipread and returns in kind by insulting them in sign language. To get over her sense of discomfort she dreams of travelling to Jeju island for a relaxing beach holiday with her mother (Gil Hae-yeon) who is also deaf. 

Across town, meanwhile, 20-something So-jung (Kim Hye-yoon) is arguing with her security guard brother Jung-tak (Park Hoon) about her outfit for an upcoming blind date. Jung-talk sets a 9pm curfew he later increases to 10 which seems at best over protective, though as it turns out he’s right to worry as not long after 10pm when So-jung is almost home she’s nabbed by vicious serial killer Do-sik (Wi Ha-joon), stabbed, and left in an alley where she manages to attract the attention of a passing Kyung-mi by throwing her white stilettos into the road. In her effort to help, Kyung-mi unwittingly becomes a target for the crazed axe murderer who continues to pursue her despite having ascertained that she cannot identify him. 

Do-sik manages to get away with his crimes by adopting the non-threatening persona of a mild-mannered office worker, swapping his medical mask, baseball cap and hoodie for a regulation issue grey suit and carrying a leather briefcase which turns out to be full of knives and other murdery equipment though of course no one is going to look inside. Ironically he tells Kyung-mi that he’s looking for his sister, trying to earn her trust by convincing her to show him where she last saw So-jung, a ruse which both echoes Jung-tak’s parallel search and his later claim that Kyung-mi is his younger sister apparently in a state of mental distress. He even goes with Kyung-mi and her mother to the police station where gets into a fight with Jung-tak who’s figured out he has his sister only for the police to mistakenly taser the angry man in a shell suit, sending the nice man in a suit on his way with a series of friendly bows and apologies. 

Kyung-mi and her mother meanwhile are rendered doubly vulnerable because of their deafness, unable to hear danger approaching while equally unable to communicate with impatient police officers and passersby even if they are able to silently communicate with each other in ways others can’t understand. Kyung-mi repeatedly hits a panic button on a lamppost that activates the streetlight and contacts local police, but there are no cameras, she can’t hear them and they have no idea why she isn’t speaking. Making a break for it, she ends up in downtown Seoul but to the bystanders who surround her she’s a crazy lady with a knife rather than a young woman pursued by a predatory man. Unable to explain the situation, she is even handed back to Dong-sik who claimed to be her brother by a trio of smug soldiers who find her hiding behind some bins and assume they’re helping by returning a mentally disturbed woman to her responsible adult. 

Yet big brothers make poor protectors. Jung-tak had been so concerned about his sister’s outfit, worryingly overprotective in obsessing over unreturned messages, but in the end it didn’t matter Dong-sik picked her for convenience’s sake. Even the first woman we see Dong-sik snatch was left to walk home in the dark by unchivalrous male colleagues who stole her taxi, chatting to her boyfriend about fried chicken but ultimately paying the price for (wisely) refusing to get into Dong-sik’s van. Dong-sik is only able to get away with his crimes by assuming his male privilege, playing the part of the respectable executive and caring big brother while the police, the ultimate authority figures, defer to him refusing to take Kyung-mi’s claims seriously in an echo of the baseline misogyny displayed by her clients at work. 

The only way to make them listen, she discovers, is in a public act of self harm that ironically exposes Dong-sik for what he really is. Taking place in near real time, Kwon’s extraordinarily tense cat and mouse game finds Kyung-mi desperately trying to escape the midnight city pursued by patriarchal violence and finding little support in an ableist society as she desperately tries not only to save herself but the other women similarly trapped in a labyrinth of seemingly inescapable threat. 


Midnight streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Jung Da-won, 2019)

When the Burning Sun scandal exploded in early 2019 it promised but perhaps did not deliver a reckoning with the generalised misogyny at the heart of a fiercely patriarchal society. Almost a year previously, 12,000 women had assembled at Hyehwa Station to protest the prevalence of “molka” or spy cam pornography in which footage captured of ordinary women through the use of hidden cameras in ladies’ bathrooms, changing areas, and fitting rooms had been uploaded to the internet without their knowledge or consent. Despite all of this, there has been relatively little progress. Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Girl Cops), a lighthearted comedy dealing with the weighty issues of molka, date rape, and the indifference with which they are treated by an overwhelmingly male police force obsessed with targets and performance, was filmed before the Burning Sun story broke but drops neatly into the post-scandal society as two women discover that they’re on their own when it comes to taking down a vicious drug gang. 

Mi-young (Ra Mi-ran) was once an ace detective well known for her ice cool arrests, but after marrying a feckless man who repeatedly failed to pass the bar exam she was forced to leave active policing and take an admin job in the complaints department for higher pay. Her sister-in-law, Ji-hye (Lee Sung-kyung), has since joined the force as a rookie officer but has little support amongst her colleagues and is often in trouble for her worryingly aggressive policing which eventually gets her “demoted” to complaints where she ends up working with Mi-young. While they’re busy bickering, a young woman arrives looking lost and confused but is frightened off by a rowdy group of men before she can say anything. As she’s left her phone behind, Mi-young chases after her, but the woman immediately steps out into traffic and is hit by a car. Obviously extremely concerned, Mi-young and Ji-hye get their tech expert colleague to Jang-mi (Choi Soo-young) to help them crack the phone and discover a compromising photo of the young woman posted on an illicit web channel promising to release the full video when it reaches 30,000 likes. 

Talking to her friend, Mi-young and Ji-hye realise that the young woman has tried to take her own life out of shame because of what these men did to her. Yet their attempts to report the matter to the legitimate authorities fall on deaf ears. Ji-hye’s colleagues joke and complain about having to investigate “perverts” instead of doing “real” policing, as if it’s all just meaningless silliness. Back when Mi-young was on the force she was placed into a special woman’s squad dedicated to dealing with crimes against women. Ji-hye quite rightly points out that times have moved on and the woman’s squads were in their own way essentially sexist in that they were created because the male police force did not regard crimes against women as “serious”, nor did they regard female officers as “real” police, so they killed two birds with one stone to allow them to get on with more “important” matters. 

The women realise that they’ll have to deal with this on their own, but even once they do discover that the male officers are only too keen to take the credit for exposing a drug ring while leaving the “peeping toms” to the ladies as not worth their time. Ji-hye’s boss even lets his mask slip in irritatedly suggesting she’s being over emotional because she is a woman and should let the boys get on with their jobs, but it’s only when she has a moment of impassioned rage explaining to them that they’re consistently failing in their duty to protect the women of Korea that they are finally shamed into realising the consequences of their lack of concern. 

Meanwhile, each of the women has been in some way been deliberately obstructed in their career solely for being a woman. Mi-young was forced off the force and is now in danger of losing her complaints job because of budget cuts. An older woman doesn’t tick any boxes on the employment quotas and so they have no reason to keep her. Ji-hye, meanwhile, is ignored by most of her team and left without support, and even Jang-mi, we discover, had NIS training but quit in resentment after they put her on a pointless Twitter monitoring programme. Their much maligned boss was also a part of the woman’s squad and wanted to continue in the police after having children, but they put her in charge of complaints instead. 

Yet Mi-young says she isn’t on the case because of female solidarity but because it makes her so angry that most of the women this happens to, like the woman who stepped in front of a moving car, blame themselves. The woman’s friend blames herself too for getting her friend into a dangerous situation because she convinced her to come to a private party with guys in a club thinking “they seemed OK”. In that sense it’s a shame that the villain concerned turns out to be a drug-addled sociopath who apparently only does the date rape stuff “for fun” because the real reason for all those clicks is data collection, rather than a perfectly ordinary guy who is probably someone’s son, brother, or even husband, not to mention chaebol kid or Kpop star. Still even if a little flippant in presentation (including some extremely unfortunate racist “humour”), Miss & Mrs Cops maybe no Midnight Runners but has its moments as its determined heroines strike back against patriarchal indifference by refusing to give up on justice.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Jung Bum-sik, 2018)

Gonjiam Haunted Asylum posterBack in 1992, all of the UK was scandalised by a strangely realistic “drama” starring three well respected TV personalities “investigating” poltergeist activity in an ordinary house. Screened as part of an ongoing anthology drama series, the show was presented as if it were live complete with a telephone number for viewers to ring in. Many were tricked into believing the events they were witnessing were “real” and that a genial children’s TV presenter they knew and loved had been dragged off by a malevolent supernatural entity. Fast forward 10 years and the nation was once again gripped by a “live” ghost hunting show presented by a dubious psychic and a (former) children’s television presenter but this time at least keeping up a pretence of “reality” even if the show’s appeal lay more in its exaggerated seriousness than it did a genuine interest in the paranormal.

The world may have been a more innocent place back in 1992, but ghost shows are still big business even in this comparatively more cynical age. Reality TV ghosthunters Horror Times decide the best way to pick up their flagging views is to go viral by going live inside a notorious disused sanatorium listed as one of CNN’s seven freakiest places on Earth. Rumour has it that Gonjiam Mental Hospital (a place all too real though here given a fictionalised history) was built by the Japanese over the top of a mass grave for resistance fighters though, according to our guides, it was also accounted one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country. Its director received numerous awards from the government of Park Chung-hee (which ought to tell you she was probably up to no good), but the hospital fell into disrepute after an incident in which all the patients mysteriously died and the director herself “disappeared”. Ever since then teenagers have been breaking in to try their luck, but anyone who’s tried to open the door to room 402 has met a sticky end.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Gonjiam) is a found footage horror movie in the modern mould and like most, the crime our “heroes” are about to commit is one of extreme hubris. Cynical in the extreme, the Horror Times crew have absolute certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural and actively mock it through their exploitation of engineered “scares”. In an odd way, if you really thought about it, Horror Times would be quite an exploitative show if it involved “real” ghosts – perhaps you should let malevolent spirits lie rather than bullying them to fight you for the entertainment of others. Nevertheless, the Horror Times crew are about to find out just how wrong they are. While they bicker amongst themselves, hatching plans to wind up the most “expressive” of the team members, setting up bizarre “rituals”, and faking being “scared” to get more money, the Captain keeps a firm eye on the numbers from the safety of the editing tent and the horrors of Gonjiam begin to bubble quietly below the surface.

The thing is, there is clearly horror in spades in this version of Gonjiam where we are told the directoress excelled at treating not only the “distressed” but also “political prisoners”. The lab holds its share of bizarre discoveries including some kind of weird chicken in preserving fluid while the “collective treatment room” is filled with individual confessional boxes which are completely closed save one opening at the chest level. The spectres we later see have large scars running down their torsos and we can only image the true horror of whatever it was that was done here and to whom and on what grounds, but Horror Times aren’t interested in any of that despite their rather superficial “investigations” of the directoress’ office and her many photos of that time she got a prize off a dictator. By the time everyone starts speaking in tongues and getting trapped in strange underwater realms, it becomes clear the “truth” is going to remain buried. 

Maybe the other lesson the Horror Times guys should have learned is that the traumatic past is not your playground and it’s probably fair enough if those unable to pass on begin to feel upset about their personal pain being exploited for ghoulish thrills. Perhaps there’s a mild lesson in the unhappy fates of those who’d rather poke the ghosts than cure them, revelling in the darkness of another era rather than trying to expose it, but Gonjiam isn’t so much about lessons as good old fashioned scares. The abandoned hospital itself is atmospheric, as are the distant banging and doors opening of their own accord but there’s a glibness in its unease that undercuts the sense of dread and inevitability so essential to the genre. The biggest irony of all is that Horror Times’ viewers lost interest when the “real” ghosts showed up – reality TV never really was about “reality” anyway.


Screened as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next and final teaser screening will be A Tiger in Winter on 17th September at Regent Street Cinema at which the full programme for this year’s festival will be revealed.

International trailer (English subtitles)

For the curious, a clip from Ghostwatch (1992)

The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)