Last Witness (2001) Movie Review

Chang-ho Bae’s “Last Witness” is a Crime Drama that deals with the Korean War (1950 — 53), a favorite subject of many South Korean films. I can only guess that the North Koreans favor the subject just as much — that is, if anyone has ever seen a North Korean film made in the last 50 years. The subject is of utmost interest and curiosity to the Korean people because the war split the Korean peninsula into two separate countries. “Joint Security Area” tackled the absurdity of the separation, and other films have gone back in time to tell tales of “collateral damage” suffered by ordinary Koreans during the war. Needless to say, the Korean War and its ramifications will be a continued source of inspiration for Korean filmmakers for decades to come.

“Last Witness” stars Jung-Jae Lee (“Asako in Ruby Shoes”) as Oh, a police Detective who, one suspects, might be more comfortable working the streets of New York City than Seoul. Sporting a black leather jacket when everyone else is wearing cheap blazers, Oh is what you might call a “loose cannon.” Oh’s world gets a little more complicated when he investigates the death of an addict name Yang (Ki-yeong Lee), a former South Korean soldier once in charge of tracking down Communist North Koreans during the War.

Oh’s investigation into Yang’s shattered life brings him to Ji-hye (Mi-yeon Lee) and Seok (Sung-kee Ahn), two lovers who played an intricate part in a bloody prison escape by POW North Korean soldiers 50 years ago. Is it a coincidence that a day after Seok is released from prison after 50 years that Yang, the soldier responsible for Seok’s imprisonment, is found floating in a river with a knife in his chest?

The biggest problem with “Last Witness” is that, as a straight Crime Drama, it’s not all that interesting. Oh’s investigation and the movie’s resolution leaves a lot to be desired, with the investigation itself terribly uninvolving. Chang-ho Bae must have realized that the movie, based on a novel of the same name, was mired in too many flashbacks and exposition, that he inserts an exciting action scene early in the film. The scene, of course, has nothing to do with the movie’s main plot, although it does serve to distract us just for a while.

The past comes alive through various narrations by the survivors and a diary that Oh locates, weaving a tale about the events that transpires after the POW North Koreans’ escape. The whole concept of, “what happened after this?” is put to good use, and provides the film with its only real tension. But even those narrations and their accompanying flashbacks are told in a linear, unobtrusive manner. Again, it’s all very straightforward and plot A leads to plot B which resolves in plot C. Not that this type of writing is bad, it just doesn’t elicit much involvement from the audience.

The acting by all the major players are fine, although there are some very obvious wrong casting choices that are compounded by weak make-up. Actress Mi-yeon Lee (“The Poisoning”) is suppose to age 50 years, from a girl in her early ’20s to an elderly woman in her “˜70s, but the result is not all that convincing. Lee is much too young for the role, and the better choice might have been to hire someone else to play her as an elderly woman. The actress’s problems stem from bad aging make-up that presents a woman with gray hair but a face devoid of lines or wrinkles. She has aged much too well, especially in light of the character’s hellish ordeals. The only actor who ages reasonably is Sung-kee Ahn (Seok), and that’s only because the actor is in his late “˜30s to early “˜40s, and didn’t have all that far to go to play his part.

As the lead, Jung-Jae Lee’s character is sometimes too clich’. His Oh is considered the “loose cannon”, which means that — in the vein of all loose cannon cop films — there needs to be a scene where he’s reprimanded by his boss for being too much of a loose cannon. Lee is probably the only decent thing in the whole movie, as he moves through his scenes with ease and conviction. He’s believable as a renegade cop with a trigger-happy finger and a tenacious drive to finish the job. And it helps that the actor is also very comfortable playing it “cool.”

Despite its many problems, “Last Witness” follows a recent South Korean movie trend — it looks good. Director Chang-ho Bae and cinematographer Yun-su Kim moves the camera well and uses slow motion in all the appropriate places. The soundtrack is put to good use and the movie’s glimpses into the past has a haunting vibe. The movie’s action scenes, including the prison breakout and a shoot-out at a school, are all well choreographed and exciting, making one wish the movie had remained in the past instead of returning to the present to continues its dull murder mystery.

Chang-ho Bae (director) / Chang-ho Bae (screenplay)
CAST: Jung-Jae Lee …. Detective Oh
Sung-kee Ahn …. Hwang-seok
Mi-yeon Lee …. Son Ji-hye

Buy Last Witness on DVD