It’s been a while since a movie pushed me towards the regular time-checking, making me feel like a teenager who, waiting for the text message by her sweetheart, can’t force herself to drop the phone. Make no mistake – Lee Su-jin’s second feature “Idol” is packed with action, blood and tears, but it wouldn’t have harmed if it had half of it unloaded in favour of a more coherent plot, sparing us the trouble of figuring out what’s going on. “Whodunnit” was too simple of a formula for Lee Su-jin, who opted for “too-many-dunnit-and-god-knows-why” instead, making it difficult to follow the storyline.
Shown earlier this year in the Panorama section of the 69th Berlinale, “Idol” competes in the Cheval Noir of the Fantasia Film Festival, where it has its North American premiere.
Confusion reigns since the introductory scene, with the voice-over of a father giving account of masturbating his mentally challenged son since he was a boy, while what we actually see on the screen is the lunch meeting of an aspiring politician Myung-hui (Han Seok-kyu) who negotiates the deposit of nuclear waste in the vast country with his party peers. We are given a handful of information of no significance for the plot, although there is a wonderful premonition given in Myung-hui words to one of the greedy guys in suits: “Considering our children’s future, I believe that inconvenience is better than apprehension”. Barely in the middle of Myung-hui’s rhetorically perfected talk, his phone goes crazy, showing a number of missed calls by his wife, and her message saying their son Johan was in trouble.
“The trouble” is a hit-and-run crime committed by a bratty, smirky teenager, who tries to wriggle himself out from the responsibility for the death of a young man whom he incomprehensively dumped in the car’s trunk. Back home, Myung-hui finds his wife in the garage trying to deal with the situation, and right there, his well-polished good-guy façade starts dissolving. Within 48 hours, Mr. Nice mutates to Mr. Practical, and his motives to turn in his son to the police have more to do with the election campaign than with any sense of justice. But before this happens, he is careful to return the corpse to the crime scene.
Once the body finds its way to the morgue, waiting to be identified, we finally meet the man who’s voice-over opened the film. Joong-sik (Sul Kyung-gu) is the mourning father of the hit-and-run victim Bu-nam, a young man with special needs who was believed to be on the honeymoon outside of Seoul. Joong-sick is not only pained by the loss; he is also worried sick that his daughter-in-law Ryeon-hwa, an illegal Chinese immigrant, (Chun Woo-hee) may also lay dead somewhere in the ditch. The trouble is, he is not the only one who’s set to find Ryeon-hwa, a potential witness to the crime, and the manic chase begins, chaotic and wild, with some of the twists that are either overly naive (there is a sister somewhere in a nearby village with a sad story that hints at Ryeon-hwa’s true personality) or unnecessary (Myung-hui making an effort to kidnap and then release the hostage at the risk of being jailed, and killing someone else at the same time). None of them knows what the missing daughter-in-low is capable of, and Chun Woo-hee offers the exquisite performance as a revengous beast with knife wielding skills, allergic to any form of disrespect. Why she hasn’t slayed a whole bunch of customers in the sex massage parlour she was working in is a big mystery giving her explosive nature, but so is the whole sub-plotting regarding her character. Ryeon-hwa suffers, metaphorically speaking, of the multiple personality disorder, being a criminal, a loving companion, a loved co-worker, and a mad killer at the same time.
Through fathers Myung-hui and Joong-sik, the two South Korean social classes meet in a situation which pretty well mirrors their societal positions. When it looks almost certain that Johan will get a mild slap in the face instead of a proper prison sentence, Joong-sik turns to an investigator to look at the case closely. At the same time, Myung-hui seeks help from a shady character to help him deal with the missing witness. It’s a vicious circle of miscalculations and acting out od exasperation.
All the neons of Seoul can’t shed the lights on this neo-noir that suffers under the overload of ideas and characters, making its 144 minutes a demanding watch, despite being beautifully shot by Son Won-ho.