First time Korean writer-director Huh Jung gives audiences one less place to feel safe with “Hide and Seek”, a novel take on the home invasion thriller and urban paranoia genres. Revolving around the sinister premise of a man who comes to believe another family is living unseen in his home, the film stars veteran Son Hyun Ju (“Secretly, Greatly”) in the lead, with support from actresses Jeon Mi Sun (“The Executioner”) and Moon Jung Hee (“Deranged”). Despite being a relatively low-budget affair without a big name director or stars, the film emerged as one of the year’s biggest domestic box office hits, quickly pulling in more than five million admissions.
Son Hyun Ju plays Sung Soo, a businessman who lives in a luxury building with his wife Min Ji (Jeon Mi Sun) and two young children. One day, he receives word that his brother has disappeared, a revelation which sends shockwaves through his family, who were all unaware that his sibling even existed. Refusing to divulge the reason behind their estrangement, he heads to his brother’s dilapidated apartment building, which has been marked for demolition and all but abandoned, with odd codes and symbols having been scratched everywhere. Though he fails to find his brother, Sung Soo meets Joo Hee (Moon Jung Hee), the woman next door, who claims that he is lurking around and spying on her and her daughter. Meanwhile, a maniac wearing black clothes and a motorbike helmet starts attacking people, targeting Sung Soo’s family in their own home.
“Hide and Seek” is one of those rare cases when a director gets pretty much everything right and hits all the right genre buttons – even more remarkable here given that it marks Huh Jung’s debut. A textbook case of how to make a suspense thriller really work, the film is a fun, gripping ride, from its earlier scenes of slow-burn menace through to the enjoyably over the top and hysterical final act. Huh does a fantastic job of suspending disbelief, keeping the viewer wholly involved despite an essentially daft premise, and skilfully navigating around potential plot holes, showing an assured grasp of the material and smart sense of timing when it comes to revelations. The central mystery is a good one, and Huh also suggests, though doesn’t overdo, levels of interpretation, and it’s quite possible to read the film as a satire or sly social critique of sorts, though most viewers will likely be content just to go along for the thrills, of which there are plenty.
The film’s low(ish) budget never shows, with some great use of locations and some suitably moody visuals, the rundown apartment block and Sung Soo’s modern building making for a nice contrast. Huh plays on this for maximum unease, and the film benefits from lots of interesting little touches, the weird codes and symbols adding a certain ominous dread, and though they ultimately don’t amount to much, the film is all the more atmospheric and cryptic for them. Crucially, these combine well with action and violence, and the film has a hard edge, packing in lots of beatings and stabbings, the motorbike helmet wearing psycho serving as a very effective and energetic villain. Sung Soo certainly ends up taking a fair amount of punishment, and Huh manages to keep the viewer never quite sure of whether or not things will work out happily.
Underscoring all this is some solid character writing, and this really helps to up the tension and to pull the viewer in. Sung Soo is a great and at least semi-unconventional protagonist, it being clear from the start that he’s neither terribly normal nor terribly nice, with skeletons just waiting to tumble from his closet. Son Hyun Ju is great in the lead, and is very watchable, his character shifting subtly throughout, as is Moon Jung Hee, who puts in a very interesting turn as the not hugely normal neighbour.
Whilst not revolutionary, “Hide and Seek” is a highly enjoyable and fast paced thriller, and one of the best films of its type from Korea in 2013. Huh Jung shows great promise with a neatly constructed and tightly directed debut, and it’s hard to imagine any genre fans being disappointed with what it has to offer.
Huh Jung (director) / Huh Jung (screenplay)
CAST: Son Hyun Ju
Jeon Mi Sun
Moon Jung Hee