One thing is certain: Lee Su-jin’s second feature “Idol” (“Woo sang” in the original language) is a head-spinning thrill ride of a movie which, in the end, can become exhausting. Having in mind Lee’s previous feature, a minor sensation on both the genre and the regular film festival circle titled “Han Gong-ju”, Idol’s inclusion in the Panorama selection of this year’s Berlinale is completely justified, even though the film certainly has narrow limits regarding the exposure outside of its native South Korea and hard core genre circles.
Basically, it is a story about two fathers connecting by a hit-and-run accident involving their sons. The title character of sorts Koo Myung-hui (Han Seok-kyu of “Shiri” and “The Berlin File” fame) is a politician on the move, whose career prospects seem promising due to his respectable, honest and trustworthy public image. His son Johan is the supposed perpetrator, but Koo stays firm in the decision to let his son try his luck with the legal system rather than to make an attempt at cover-up. On the other side of the spectre is the simple-minded van driver Jong-sik (Sul Kyung-gu), whose mentally handicapped son was the victim. He is full of rage and is not going to be satisfied with a proverbial slap on the wrist of a sentence for the politician’s son, so he hires a private detective to conduct his own investigation.
Idol screened at Berlin Film Festival
As it plays out, there were witnesses to the accident, and they saw a young woman leaving the scene. It turns to be Jong-sik’s daughter in law, Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee, the lead actress of “Han Gong-ju”, also seen in Na Hong-jin’s “The Wailing”), and she might not be that innocent. She is an illegal immigrant from China with “colourful” past, a tortured soul prone to torture and violent behaviour herself. And so begins the battle of the wits, full of twists and turns where no one is actually innocent, set against the rainy nights of Seoul for the exceptionally noir-ish feeling.
Noir as a genre has archetypical characters in its foundations and that is the path that Lee Su-jin takes straight from the start. The trouble is, however, that even the main trio (a seemingly benevolent, but corrupt politician, a vengeful proletarian father and a woman who serves as a damsel in distress, a femme fatale and a downright psycho) is never elevated to anything more than a cliché. The Korean star actors do what they can, Chun Woo-hee is especially memorable, and their interaction is both juicy and compelling. The supporting characters fared even worse: they are lost in numbers and relegated, at best, to plot devices.
It is evident that Lee, who also penned the script, has her mind somewhere else: on the plot that is complicated enough so it keeps the viewer intrigued for the whole duration of the film. However, the last drop of its logic gets lost in the inflation of twists and turns, so even the most attentive of the viewers cannot make any sense out of it.
Combined with fast pace, rapid editing and the runtime of 140 minutes, “Idol” definitely outstays its welcome a bit due to its intensity. But it is technically masterful and stylistically polished enough to be fun for most of the time, especially for a certain type of genre audience, which makes it more than a decent effort