Originally released back in 2005 and now finally arriving on DVD, “Brain Wave” was the debut feature from Korean director Shin Tae Ra, whose grim psychological thriller “Black House” was one of the horror highlights of 2007 and was a popular hit at the domestic box office. Since screening at the 2005 Jeonju Film Festival and receiving a limited cinema release, the film has remained relatively obscure, undeservedly so, as despite a low budget it manages to pack in more imagination and gripping thrills than any number of recent high profile would-be blockbusters. Certainly, it provides ample evidence as to why Shin has since gone on to bigger things, showing him to be an extremely talented individual as writer, director and producer.
The film starts in disorienting fashion as a young sketch artist called Jun Oh (Kim Do Yoon, who also starred in “Black House”) starts experiencing blinding headaches and develops what appear to be strange psychic powers. This seems to particularly concern his girlfriend Jenny (Jang Se Yoon), who insists he keep taking the medicine she supplies him with, without saying where it comes from or exactly what it does. Meanwhile, two policemen hunting a vicious killer who beats his victims to death follow the trail of corpses back to Jun, with their investigation uncovering a bizarre conspiracy involving brain experiments.
Although at heart a science fiction film, “Brain Wave” is quite hard to categorise, also containing elements of detective story and offbeat mystery. Thankfully, Shin keeps things coherent, mainly due to a great script that nicely develops its various mysteries in engaging fashion, with events not playing out in the usual manner, and with the viewer gradually being given clues as to both the nature and origins of Jun’s powers, and as to the identity of the killer instead of simply being spoon-fed answers. The plot works well, with several effective twists along the way, and a genuinely surprising ending which seems to be setting things up for a sequel. As such, he manages to avoid the trap that many first time writer / directors fall into by overplaying their hand and complicating matters. Certainly, whilst pleasingly ambitious, the film is never too obscure, and never loses sight of the basic goal of providing entertainment and thrills. Shin wears his influences on his sleeve, and the film has a number of scenes obviously influenced by “The Matrix”, “Scanners”, “Terminator 2” and other genre productions, whilst still managing come across as being a highly original and individual piece of work.
After a fairly slow start, Shin throws in plenty of action, mainly through some exciting chase scenes, and the film is generally tense. Towards the end, things do get violent and grisly, with beatings and severed body parts featuring regularly, and the film benefits from a certain visceral edge. Although to an extent these elements of the film are limited by the obviously low budget, there are still a good number of special effects scenes, and Shin employs these economically to add a few fantastic flourishes and to help bring his vision to life.
The film is a visually impressive affair, and he shows himself to be a director of considerable talent and imagination, making excellent use of his limited resources. Although shot on video the film never looks distractingly cheap, and thanks to some highly creative video editing and split screen work it manages to transcend its lowly origins. Without being too flashy it benefits from a real kinetic quality and sense of energy, especially towards the end after Jun starts to realise the full extent of his powers. Shin does a good job of putting the viewer in his shoes thanks to some surreal image distortion and effective use of electronic noises – though it has to be said that this does get a little headache inducing at times.
This is however a very minor criticism and “Brain Wave” stands as an entertaining and gripping slice of edgy science fiction. What it lacks in production values it more than makes up for in imagination and clever plotting, challenging and engaging the viewer right through to the end.
Sin Tae-ra (director) / Sin Tae-ra (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Do-yoon, Jang Se-yoon, Son Ho-seung, Son Byeong-wook, Hwang Choon-ha