Eighteen years after his debut feature film “Happy End”, director Jung Ji-woo reunites with actor par excellence Choi Min-sik for murder mystery/courtroom drama “Heart Blackened”, the remake of Chinese film “Silent Witness” starring superstar Aaron Kwok. “Heart Blackened” earned Best Supporting Actress nominations for both Lee Hanee and Lee Soo-kyung at the 54th Baeksang Art Awards, with the latter eventually emerging victorious.

Heart Blackened is screening at London Korean Film Festival

Yim Tae-san is the CEO of a vast empire who believes that money is the solution to all of life problems, except for his fledgling relationship with his daughter Yim Mi-ra. His relationship with her is further dented with his engagement to beautiful and much-loved singer Park Yoo-na, who just cannot seem to get Mi-ra to warm up to her, despite her best efforts. When Yoo-na is found killed in a parking lot shortly after a meeting with Mi-ra, suspicion falls immediately on the latter, who cannot remember anything of the crucial hours of the incident due to an inconvenient blackout, and she is swiftly arrested. 

Yim Tae-san throws money and man-power in his efforts to clear Mi-ra’s name, eventually hiring up-and-coming lawyer Choi Hee-jeong, Mi-ra’s old friend, to clear his daughter’s name in court. Hee-jeong – part lawyer, part detective, full badass – sets on a course to find out what went on that night, gather evidence with the help of her journalist flatmate, and go up against a prosecutor she knows all too well. Tae-san, meanwhile, goes his own way trying to uncover the truth and help his daughter, throwing money at whoever can help, a course which eventually leads him to cross paths with Kim Dong-myeong, a Yoo-na superfan who specialises in CCTV installations.

Jung Ji-woo has had a varied oeuvre, including a family drama, love stories, a politically charged drama and a sports film, but this is the first time he handles a thriller and, for the most part, succeeds at it. The film works best as a whodunit, as Hee-jeong slowly unveils the events of the night with the help of eyewitnesses and surveillance footage. One might wonder if a lawyer would go to such extents to get to the bottom of a case, but her motives to clear her friend’s name are understandable. Tae-san’s efforts, on the other hand, seem completely believable from a man for whom money is nothing but means to an end. The involvement of all parties in the events of the night keep changing and keep the viewer guessing. 

The director also offers a sharp critique on the stronghold that the rich and famous have on society, on public perception, even on the judicial system. The film’s stand on how far a father would go to for his child, even one that he doesn’t get along with, is interesting. “Heart Blackened” does lose steam when it gets into the courtroom. Courtroom decorum  is thrown for a toss in favour of dramatic effect, leading the scenes to feel artificial and taking away from an otherwise grounded film. The prosecution’s inadequacies are plain to see and most frustrating. Mercifully, the film doesn’t spend as much time in the courtroom as one would otherwise think it would. 

Choi Min-sik has worked with some of South Korea’s best directors in some of South Korea’s best films, but “Happy End” remains one of his most memorable performances. In fact, his performance  in “Heart Blackened” reminds us of that performance at times, his face as stoic as possible while carrying a volcano of grief within himself in both films. So good is his performance that his monologue in the courtroom remains not only the film’s best scene in the courtroom, but arguably its best part. Park Shin-hye doesn’t do a lot of films, working more on small screen K-Dramas, but she is excellent when she does. Here, she plays a lawyer yet again after 2013’s tearjerker “Miracle in Cell No. 7”, and feels almost like an extension of that role, working to clear the innocent’s name yet again. Former Miss Korea Lee Hanee shines as Park Yoo-na, but is just slightly overshadowed by Lee Soo-kyung’s wonderful turn as Mi-ra, who portrays the many layers and changes in her character with surprising deftness. Ryu Jun-yeol has had an incredible couple years, featuring in tentpole films “The King”, “A Taxi Driver” and “Believer” and is a breath of fresh air here.

The cinematography by Kim Tae-kyung is lush, showing off the beautiful exterior locations with some fine use of natural light. The film’s weakest technical aspect has to be its editing, with the film in much need of a trim, particularly in its final lap. The film opts to spell out every single aspect of the mystery, which audiences would have probably been better off guessing for themselves with the various hints that are already scattered and pointed at at various parts, a strategy which would have worked in the film’s favour. The final, lingering cut-to-black shot of Choi Min-sik is just perfect though and leaves the viewer adequately satisfied.

“Heart Blackened” is a strong entry in the mystery thriller genre, if not so much in the courtroom drama genre. It is an entertaining, engrossing watch that deserves to be seen for a very strong performance from one of South Korea’s greatest actors.

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