Not a year goes by without South Korea releasing a serial killer movie, even if in the recent years the better entries in the genre have been few and far inbetween. “The Witness”, by director Jo Kyu-jang, is one of the better films of the genre to come out of the country, albeit for slightly different reasons, featuring strong performances and an engaging storyline.

The Witness is screening at London Korean Film Festival

Sang-hoon is a hard-working everyman who has  moved into an apartment in a good neighbourhood with his wife and daughter. Late one night, when he returns home drunk after treating his colleagues to drinks, he hears screams outside the apartment building. When he goes to the window to see what the commotion is, he witnesses the brutal bludgeoning to death of a woman at the hands of a man. Sudden movement in the house causes the lights to go on and the killer looks up and realises he’s been seen. He decides to leave, but not before counting up to the floor where he saw the lights go on and off. The police investigation, headed by Detective Jae-yeob, reaches a stalemate when not one resident from the many apartment complexes nearby, who were in plain view of the crime scene, comes forth as a witness, including Sang-hoon, who fears for his and and family’s safety if he were to testify as a witness.

Director Jo Kyu-jang and script-writer Lee Young-jong are two men on a mission. Apparently inspired by a real-life incident in New York, the two men pull no punches in calling modern society out for its selfishness and self-centeredness. The fact that the seemingly preposterous-sounding scenarios actually feel genuine and believable, makes the story even more potent. Considering that the value of their real estate might come down if associated with such an incident, not only do none of the residents come forward to actively help the victim when she’s attacked or the police in their investigation, they also pass a notice for all the residents of the apartment complex to not help the police in their investigation, since the victim was not a resident of the complex. The film is at its sharpest when criticising today’s society, with a scene in which Sang-hoon’s wife Soo-jin helps a fellow neighbour who is looking for his missing wife, even as a crowd of other residents is ostracising him for doing so, standing out.

Cinematographer Yu Eok’s work compliments the director’s vision accurately. For a film of the genre, “The Witness” is surprisingly filled with bright, vibrant photography, letting instead the darkness within the human psyche come to the fore.

For a film about a killer, the weakest part of “The Witness” disappointingly is the killer himself, with the character being extremely ill-developed. Sometimes a little ambiguity works in a film’s favour when it comes to backstories for the perpetrator, but here he has practically nothing to do, apart from look mean and cause mild headache for our leads. Though he’s supposed to be impulsive, for a seasoned killer, he comes across instead as rather incompetent. When we meet him, he is trying to catch up on a victim he has failed to successfully knock out, who has ran off because he didn’t tie her down well. He follows her right in the middle of hundreds of apartments and kills her in plain sight of every single one of them, while making no efforts to shut her up or to take her back into the dark before killing her. When he later returns to the apartment complex, he chases his would-be victims right into crowds, never planning any of his kills well or indeed thinking them through.

Because of the limitations of the character, Kwak Si-yang, who plays the killer, doesn’t really get much to do apart from look mean at times and growl when required. On the other hand, the film makes excellent use of three actors who have been playing excellent support for years in films and television. Both Kim Sang-ho (“Haemoo”) and Jin Kyung (“Master”) provide competent support as Detective Jae-yeob and Soo-jin respectively, but the film belongs to Lee Sung-min! The actor has been watching from the sidelines for years now, but 2018 is finally the year he has really come into his own. Following scene-stealing supporting roles in this year’s hits “What A Man Wants” and “A Spy Gone North”, “The Witness” is his first ever lead role and he carries the film with great confidence, with his moral dilemmas of self-preservation and the want to help portrayed wonderfully. One particular scene where Jae-yeob asks Sang-hoon to confirm the killer from a photo, with the real killer in plain view of Sang-hoon, needs to be seen. He’s set to finish the year strong too, with an important role in Woo Min-ho’s “The Drug King” next to Song Kang-ho yet to follow.

“The Witness” is a fine mix of social critique and thriller with some decent action set-pieces scattered around, anchored by a strong central performance from Lee Sung-min. Watch it if you’re a fan of the genre, and final scene with Sang-hoon standing in the same spot as the victim is sure to leave you with goosebumps.

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