Since the release of “Whispering Corridors” over a decade ago, high schools have been fertile ground for suspense in Korean cinema, as director Lee Sang Yong again shows with “4th Period Mystery”. The film’s alternate title, “Detectives in 40 Minutes” gives a pretty good indication of its premise, following a couple of students who have to solve a seemingly random murder within the time constraints of a single lesson period. Unsurprisingly, the film features a fresh faced cast, including popular teen actor Yoo Seung Ho, progressing from his breakthrough role in the acclaimed “The Way Home” and debut starlet Kang So Ra, with adult support from the likes of Park Chul Min and Jeong Seok Yong.
The film is a high concept affair, as the school’s number one student Jeong Hun (Yoo Seung Ho) walks into his classroom during a break in lessons, only to find his rival Tae Gyu (Jo Sang Keun) slumped dead at his desk, having been brutally stabbed. Before he can do anything, class loner Da Jeong (Kang So Ra) shows up, catching him in a most incriminating position. Fortunately for him, she not only believes his innocence, but offers to help him to solve the mystery and catch the real killer – a task made particularly urgent by the fact that in 40 minutes the rest of the class will return and the body will be discovered.
Clocking in at less than an hour and a half, “4th Period Mystery” is a film which doesn’t waste any time, and director Lee, here making his debut after working on “My Dear Enemy” and “Swindler in My Mom’s House” makes the very most of its intriguing gambit. Wisely, before the murder is discovered around half an hour in, he spends a fair amount of time setting up the characters – although in this case, perhaps ‘suspects’ would be a better choice of word, since from early on it is made pretty clear that almost everyone has something to hide and since half the cast have sinister music accompanying their every move. Whilst Jeong Hun and Da Jeong are fairly basic protagonists, both are interesting and likeable enough, with charismatic performances from the young stars, particularly from Kang So Ra, who has to suffer the indignity of one of the worst efforts in recent memory to disguise a cute girl as an ugly duckling, in this case simply by brushing her hair over her face.
The teachers also make for reasonably engaging characters, mainly due to their glaringly suspicious behaviour and amusingly tangled relationships, and this does help to lift the film from being solely teen appeal. The inevitably burgeoning romance between Jeong Hun and Da Jeong works well enough, mainly since it takes a backseat to the real drama and the film benefits from their effective chemistry being relatively underplayed.
Thanks to this early investment, the film is all the more involving once the mystery kicks in, and there is a great deal of fun to be had in spotting all of the little details and hooks planted earlier recurring, and in trying to stay one step ahead of the surprisingly clever script. Although most of the detective work is straightforward, join the dots type stuff, Lee generates an impressive amount of tension, and keeps things moving at a fast pace, even managing to add a few twists along the way to the satisfying dénouement. Actually, the film is fast moving in a very literal sense, with most of the characters spending a very high percentage of the running time dashing around the corridors and trying to keep their balance. Coupled with a sharp, pounding soundtrack, this can mean that the film is quite exhausting to watch at times and very frantic in places, though thankfully in a good way. The action is nicely shot, with Lee’s direction being fresh rather than overtly flashy, and he keeps the shaky camera work to a dignified level while throwing in some split screen work and on screen text messaging.
All of this combines to make “4th Period Mystery” very entertaining, especially since Lee doesn’t take things too seriously, adding a real sense of liveliness and youthful exuberance to the proceedings. As such, although the film doesn’t achieve anything particularly ground breaking, it offers plenty of excitement, and handles itself in an admirably economic fashion that certainly makes it stand out from other recent more adult themed thrillers.
Lee Sang-yong (director) / Sin Dong-yeop (screenplay)
CAST: Yoo Seung-ho, Kang So-ra, Jo Sang-geun, Jeon Joon-hong, Jeong Seok-yong, Park Cheol-min