Contemporary Korean cinema is awash with slick, violent thrillers and the audiences over there keep eating them up. I don’t blame them either. Most of their genre films make “edgy” American thrillers appear tame in comparison. Even when plot logic is thrown to the wind, Korean thrillers are typically an entertaining joy to watch. Like this movie Hide and Seek, for example, which was one of their top grossers of 2013. It’s the debut film from Huh Jung and while it provides heaps of white-knuckle suspense, its story kinda collapses during the second half.
The film begins with a bracing prologue in which a young woman is stalked by the next-door neighbor in her apartment building. The neighbor wears all black and a full-face motorcycle helmet with the visor down. He’s either a huge Daft Punk fan or a fucking creep. He’s probably in your closet right now. This entire prologue is jarringly tense and utilizes precise camera work to heighten the uncomfortable atmosphere. That creep could be anywhere, but the camera only shows you so much. It’s top notch filmmaking and sets the mood for a relentless thriller.
Jump to Sung-soo, a successful café owner in Seoul. He has two bright kids, a supportive wife, and a luxurious apartment in a swank building. Those were all positive adjectives, so the guy must be doing something right, right? Look beneath the surface though and Sung-soo is harboring a bevy of past demons. It’s caused him to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder – he washes glasses and plates to the point of breaking them. Seriously, Huh Jung manages to draw suspenseful moments out of this guy washing fucking wine glasses. It’s ridiculous. I was cringing the whole time, thinking he was gonna break one and cut his hand to ribbons. Creating suspense out of the mundane? I love that shit.
Sung-soo learns that his estranged brother has gone missing. He checks out his bro’s last known address – the rundown tenement building from the prologue. The plot thickens when Sung-soo discovers tiny codes penciled around every apartment door. Then a neighbor invites him in to her apartment, only to flip out when she learns who his brother is.
From there the film throws in a lot of twists that don’t always work. All of it, however, is expertly crafted – particularly the chases and fist fights, which punch with kinetic energy. It’s not a Korean thriller without a good foot chase, and Hide and Seek has a couple of stellar ones. Huh Jung’s use of space in the tenement building is terrific, with loads of close combat sequences. Sing-soo isn’t Jason Bourne though, so the fights are really clumsy and awkward, which make them more believable.
Huh Jung pulls back from the action at times to explore the confines of consumerism and technology. With all the advances in security and surveillance, we’re still a high-strung and insecure race of wimps, is what I think the filmmaker is saying. Hide and Seek effectively exhibits that fine line between normality and violence, sometimes at the sake of the narrative. The twists start to take a toll on the gritty strength of the story. That’s fine for some films, y’know, the whole suspend disbelief thing. But Hide and Seek is initially presented as a contemplative film about grief and struggling through past horrors, so when it nearly goes off the rails, it moves away from that realistic plane in order to accommodate more genre thrills.
It’s certainly worth a watch though. Hide and Seek delivers more goods than the average American thriller, with style to spare. If Huh Jung had dug a little deeper into Sung-soo, brooded a little harder over his past demons, this bitch could’ve been a genre classic. Instead, it’s simply a tense thrill ride. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Hide and Seek is now available on various VOD platforms and will be released on DVD April 8 by RAM Releasing.
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