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Mobile phone related films have been pretty popular of late in both Hollywood and Asia, with the likes of “Connected” and “Cellular” manipulating the modern over-reliance on technology for tense thrills. Thankfully, Korean director Kim Han Min, previously responsible for the offbeat mystery “Paradise Murdered” takes a different, somewhat more interesting route, exploring how the simple loss of a phone can lead to a series of wildly escalating events that push two very different men over the edge. The result is a thriller which is not only fast moving and gripping, but which has a fascinatingly amoral edge, with no clear cut heroes and villains.
The film begins with sleazy talent manager Seung Min (Uhm Tae Woong, also in “Forever the Moment”) seemingly on the edge of hitting the big time and clearing off his debts after his young actress model charge Jin A (Lee Se Na) lands a high profile commercial. Unfortunately, immediately after getting the good news, he receives a video message from one of her former boyfriends showing her in a very compromising series of positions. Although Seung Min manages to strong-arm the video back, he accidentally looses his phone with the message still on it, sending him into a panic. The phone is found by a mysterious man called Lee Gyu (Park Yong Woo, “Blood Rain”), who seems friendly enough, but who is soon blackmailing Seung Min into a series of violent tasks, not to mention showing an unhealthy interest in his frustrated wife (Park Sol Mi,).
Like “The Chaser” before it, “Handphone” really benefits from having an immoral protagonist, with the lines between hero and villain increasingly blurred as the plot progresses. It is clear from the start that Seung Min is, though likeable enough thanks to a charismatic performance by Uhm Tae Woong, not exactly a nice guy, having affairs and being brutally ruthless when his career requires it. Whilst Lee Gyu initially seems as if he will be a traditional heavy breathing phone-psycho, director Kim subtly and gradually pulls a clever reversal of characters, generating sympathy for him whilst revealing more disturbing truths about Seung Min. This gives the film a definite Hitchcockian feel, and as things progress and the two start behaving in an increasingly crazed and violent manner, it really is a toss up as to who the viewer is more likely to be rooting for and as to who will cross the line of no return first. The supporting cast are also quite different to the usual bunch of one note plot furniture, with Seung Min’s wife having secrets of her own, and with both men having encounters with a series of amusing oddballs.
The film is thrilling and exciting throughout, with Kim showing an expert talent for gradually notching up the tension. His direction is slick without being overtly flashy, and he keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat with a number of set pieces that go far beyond the usual scenes of characters desperately searching for phone chargers or running across crowded streets that usually make up this kind of film. Things do get pretty violent in places, especially towards the end, and this helps to give the proceedings a satisfyingly visceral edge and toughness.
The film is genuinely quite unpredictable right through to the inevitable, though still surprising final confrontation, and although a couple of the later twists are somewhat hard to swallow, the film is very engaging. At the same time, it has a certain sly sense of gallows humour, and also works well as a bleak comedy of errors, with pretty much everything possible going wrong to ensure that the two men end up on a collision course. Without either Seung Min or Lee Gyu being an obvious hero figure, it is easy to laugh or groan at their never ending runs of bad decisions and mistakes. This may make things a little mean spirited in places, though the film is never nihilistic and has an oddly cheerful air, as did Kim’s “Paradise Murdered”.
This again helps “Handphone” to stand out not only from other mobile phone related efforts, but from other thrillers in general, and it certainly has a winningly different feel. Fast paced and more complex than its simple premise might suggest, it veers from the usual safe route to offer exciting and challenging viewing. Kim Han Min is rapidly proving himself to be one of the more interesting and talented new Korean directors, and one of the few willing to take risks and play around with the usual genre formats.
Han-min Kim (director) / Mi-hyun Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Yong-woo Park … Jeong Yi-gyu
Tae-woong Eom … Oh Seung-min
Sol-Mi Park … Seung-min’s Wife
Bo-yeon Hwang … Kim Dae-jin
Se-na Lee … Kim Dae-jin
Kil-soo Park … President Choi
Seung-joon Lee … Kang Myeon-sik