The secret to a successful thriller is simple: an involving storyline for the audience to be sucked in by and involving characters to take the audience through that story. Mood and atmosphere will only get you so far; you need flesh and blood to make the mood and atmosphere matter. The Korean “Tell Me Something”, a 1999 stab at David Fincher-esque filmmaking, got the atmosphere right, but misfired with a terribly dull leading lady. So too with “H”, another 2002 serial killer film out of Korea.
On almost every technical level, first-time helmer Jong-hyuk Lee’s “H” is an accomplished film. Technically speaking. The movie falters when it comes to characters, many of who are either ill-conceived or poorly cast. That said, the storyline, a cold police procedural, is mostly drab and the Third Act twist ending is overly convoluted, not to mention being too similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure”.
The film stars Jung-ah Yum as Detective Kim, a cerebral female cop in charge of an investigation concerning a series of slayings around the city. The killings begin when a young woman’s body is found at a landfill one rainy night. A serial killer, it seems, is on the loose. The victims are all young, pregnant, and unwed teens. Immediately Kim notices that the killer’s M.O. is very similar to the ones committed by another serial killer currently on Death Row named Shin Hyun.
Joining Kim in the investigation is brash Detective Kang (Jin-hee Ji), who visits Shin in prison for answers. Alas, Shin is suffering from Anthony Hopkins syndrome, and is intent on playing games with the hotheaded cop, even if he only ends up looking like a third rate Hannibal the Cannibal. It doesn’t help that the actor playing the incarcerated serial killer is much too young and is liable to make the audience snicker at his completely unwarranted smugness. Needless to say, speaking in riddles more comfortable in a .05-cent fortune cookie, Shin proves to be unhelpful.
While “H” clearly blunders with multiple casting mistakes, the biggest flaw has to be lead Jung-ah Yum. Playing Kim as a somber, cold, and calculating cop, Yum doesn’t allow her character to show a single shred of emotion, and the character oftentimes is seen staring blankly back at the audience for long periods. Apparently the suicide of her husband, who was also a Detective, has left Kim a cold fish all over. While her character is often referred to as a smart cop, I wonder why the actress and the director seem to equate “smart” with “lifeless”.
As if to make up for his co-star’s complete lack of personality, Jin-hee Ji goes overboard. Ironically, while the script turns Yum into a stoic, lifeless carcass, it also turns Ji’s Kang into an emotional wreck that doesn’t seem capable of adjusting to life as a cop, or a world full of murderers. Humorously, on more than one occasion this leads to scenes of the combustible Kang bursting at the seams with unrestrained emotion while the catatonic Kim loiters in the background, looking like a cadaver that someone forgot to take to the morgue.
For style and mood, “H” isn’t all bad. Much of the film takes place at night, although “H” doesn’t quite strike the dread of “Tell me Something”. Lee uses music well, especially during a chase early on that ends in a nightclub. The sequence is so understated that when the violence begins, it hits the audience hard. “H’s” other advantage is that it embraces gore. Throats getting slit have never looked so perversely excellent as they do here.
Alas, for all its technical know-how, there’s simply not an engaging story, or characters, to keep one’s attention. The storyline meanders, with the previously mentioned ending coming out of left field. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen Kurosawa’s “Cure” or even Benny Chan’s “Heroic Duo”, you’ve already seen “H’s” last-minute gimmick.
Jong-hyuk Lee (director) / Jong-hyuk Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-ah Yum …. Detective Kim Mi Yun
Jin-hee Ji …. Detective Kang Tae Hyun
Ji-ru Sung …. Detective Park