Taking its inspiration from the reality television survival shows that continue to be popular across the world, “A Million” notches things up by putting its characters in real danger as they compete for the titular sum – though there seems to be some number confusion, as the DVD box art refers to 1,000,000,000. The film was written and directed by Jo Min Ho, previously responsible for the underrated hardboiled thriller “Les Formidables”, and sees him mining the premise not only for tension and excitement, but to explore in surprising depth some of the darker aspects of human nature. With Park Hee Son (“The Scam”) as the director of the show, the film’s contestants are made up of a number of famous faces, including Park Hae Il (“Paradise Murdered”), Shin Min Ah (“Naked Kitchen”), Lee Min Ki (“Haeundae”), Jung Yoo Mi (“Family Ties”), Lee Cheon Hee (“Romance of Their Own”), and Ko Eun Ah (“Loner”).
The film wastes little time in getting things underway, as a seemingly disparate bunch of people, including a stock broker, ex-navy man, law student, camera nut and other recognisable broad strokes, receive notification that they have won a place on a reality television show set in the Australian outback. Without bothering to find out too much about the program, they jump on a plane, and soon find themselves in real danger, as the director escalates things from the usual inane games to genuine survival challenges. With the promise of the all-important prize driving them onwards, the contestants vie against each other as it becomes increasingly obvious that they have been lured to the isolated location for a specific and sinister purpose.
“A Million” makes determined use of the reality TV show format, right from its lively introduction introducing the various characters. Actually, this proves to be important, as none of them really progress or develop much beyond these basic definitions and initial impressions, a few last act reversals aside. None of them are particularly likeable, and though it does make caring about their fates and relationships difficult, it plays nicely into the themes and commentary on human nature that later emerge. Thankfully, this detachment never matters too much, as the film essentially revolves around the characters being bumped off one by one, and the question as to who the director actually is and what his motivation might be drives the drama. The various trials and different survival games help to add a little variety, and the film is fast moving, repeatedly putting the cast in one kind of danger or another.
Director Jo does a good job of generating and maintaining a certain tension throughout, mainly since he makes it very clear early on that all of the cast are fair game, with no real obvious heroes. Even Park Hee Son’s director is an ambiguous rather than overtly villainous figure, despite some amusing overacting, and the film is morally quite interesting. The film’s flashback structure, though it tends to come and go on a whim, actually works well, adding more suspense by dropping hints as to what may or may not have really happened. As such, although the plot doesn’t really hang together (in particular with regards to the involvement of the police and the broadcasting of the show, two important issues which Jo pays lip service to and simply hopes that the viewer accepts), and mainly progresses through acts of stupidity and a reliance on the characters being painfully slow on the uptake, it does grip, and there are a handful of surprises along the way, along with a few flashes of quite shocking violence. Interestingly, rather than either shifting into melodrama or thriller conventions, the last act emerges as something rather more grim, offering a series of bleak observations on human nature and society and ending on a decidedly downbeat note very different to the usual kind of last minute set piece thrills or twist that might have been expected. This does give the film a thoughtful air most unusual in such high concept affairs, and Jo makes his point in convincingly sobering fashion.
The outback setting really makes the film stand out, and Jo makes great use of the truly gorgeous scenery in all its barren and panoramic glory. The environment is suitably harsh, with the deserts, forests and river rapids all adding a real sense of danger, and indeed offering more of a survival challenge that the characters themselves or the director’s manipulations. Jo also includes lots of wildlife footage, including the expected kangaroos and oversized insects, and this too accentuates the film’s sense of place and the characters’ removal from the safety of their everyday lives.
This genuine sense of survival challenge and of its characters being constantly under threat makes “A Million” exciting viewing throughout, and though it is somewhat clumsily handled in places it offers a different and more primal brand of thrills to most other genre efforts. Although not quite as clever as Jo seems to think, the film also wins extra points for its general ruthlessness and mournful final note.
Min-Ho Cho (director) / Min-Ho Cho (screenplay)
CAST: Hae-il Park