Korean cinema has been coming into it's own in the past decade or so and is evidenced most clearly by their horror films. This came to me as I am currently halfway through an excellent book on New Korean Cinema and will certainly review it upon completion, but in the meantime, I will discuss the handful of films I view as mentioned in the book. The first of these films is the excellent crime thriller/ psychological horror excursion titled Tell Me Something, which does not have the reputation of the works of Joon-Ho Bong or Chan-wook Park, yet still manages to be something remarkable. Tell Me Something, directed by Yoon-hyung Chang is a visceral study of deceit, revenge and degradation unlike anything before, combining a grating soundtrack, meta-cinematic dread and meticulous acting to provide a thrill ride that clearly borrows from predecessors like Basic Instinct while managing to be completely fresh in its vision. In a historic sense, Tell Me Something is one of the harbingers of what would become a globally recognized nation of cinema. Sure, it is not the best film to come out of Korea by any means, but is a fine piece of cinema that is masterful in its existence alone.
Tell Me Something, is a convoluted and multifaceted crime film of grand proportions. The film follows one Detective Oh (Suk-kyu Han) who is returning to work after the recent death of his mother. His return is shadowed by the fact that he borrowed money from a notorious gang leader to assure a surgery for his now deceased mother. It is only moments into his new return that he is assigned to a case involving a serial killer. As with most serial killers, his subject has their own modus operandi, which consists of killing respectable mails and severing their body parts, often leaving one part attached to another dead body, however, in each instance at least one body part is left missing. Befuddled but determined to regain the respect of his colleagues Oh sets out to find the killer. His search leads him very quickly to one Chae (Eun-ha Shim) who is the daughter of a famous Korean painter. As the film's pace picks up it becomes clear that Chae is a very troubled individual between her past sexual abuses on the part of her father and her trouble relationships with past guys, who incidentally end up being the victims in the still unknown serial killers crimes. Despite her obvious problems, Oh grows fond of Chae and pursues her while continually defending her place in the crimes. As he remains oblivious to her actions, other lovers from Chae's past become victims and in no time Oh's colleagues begin to die. In one final confrontation, which pits Oh blaming the murders on a jealous female friend of Chae, he denounces Chae's guilt and is almost killed by the psychotic friend. After the dust clears, Oh and Chae share a discussion in which he turns down her invitations to live with him in Paris. In the closing scenes, Chae is shown boarding a plane, while Oh enters her apartment one last time. He turns on the light to reveal one her art projects, a morbid hodgepodge of the body parts remaining from the killers victims. It becomes clear that she was the murderer the entire time, yet frozen in fear Oh is unable to stop her from leaving on the plane. The film then closes with Chae talking to another man on the flight, suggesting that her killing is far from completion.
As noted earlier, I am currently reading a fascinating book on New Korean Cinema that discusses this film briefly while defending that the horror genre can serve as social critique. Ignoring the debate surrounding horror as critique (although I am in favor of it's possibility) I instead what to elaborate on another point made about the film. In the piece, the author, Kyu-hyun Kim, discusses the foolish claims that the film just furthers notions of women as hysterical and that their otherness and subsequent violent behavior adhere to conservative fears. Instead, Kim suggests that the film promotes the problems of patriarchy and that rebellion is necessary in dismantling such occurrences. While the film certainly counters male power in a violent manner, it does raise very serious questions concerning sexual abuse, the voice of women in Korea and the problem of male desires and their interference in the world of criminal justice. Chae is certainly a mentally unstable character in need of help, yet it is also apparent that most of her problems stem from her father's sexual abuse and violent degradation. She is at many points paralleled to Ophelia of Shakespeare's Hamlet, who has grown to become one of the most problematic women in the history of the written word, save for the Virgin Mary. Chae throughout the film continues in her violent ways, but with the exception of the few cops trying to do their jobs, her violent acts are reactionary to previous injustices enacted by men, whether it is her father's violence or one of her lovers who engaged in scopophilic voyeurism with Chae while dating. It is no coincidence then that Oh, the only one to claim her innocence, is spared her violent wrath. Not only does he not act violently towards her, when he does discover that she is indeed guilty he does nothing to punish her for her actions. While part of this failure to report her comes from paralysis, it is always possible that he realizes that at a very basic level her revenge was more than justified.
If you fancy yourself at all concerned with the current world of Asian cinema, Tell Me Something is a must see. If you like crime thrillers Tell Me Something is a must see. Hell, if you even remotely enjoy movies Tell Me Something is a must see. Go get a copy. You will not be disappointed.