Despite my original aversion to Firefighter movies, I was sufficiently entertained enough by the Hong Kong Firefighter movie “Lifeline” to seek out other films in the genre. I stumbled across “Libera Me” from South Korea. The film is essentially a Teen Slasher but with an adult cast, crossed with minor social commentary about the under appreciated nature of being a firefighter in Korea. “Libera Me” unfortunately also bears out my original thought when it comes to Firefighter movies: How many different ways can you film a fire burning down some dinky building until it gets repetitive?
Confronted with this question, director Yun-ho Yang answers by treating the fire like an elaborate stage show, and as a result “Libera Me” is filled with some of the most gorgeous fire to ever be captured on celluloid — that is, if you like that sort of stuff. The movie opens with a 30-minute fire segment, thrusting us immediately into the life of a firefighter and lead Sang-woo (Min-su Choi), a veteran firefighter who seems to be able to “sense” and predict the actions of fires. It’s also in this fiery location that Sang-woo first feels the presence of Hee seo (Seung-won Cha), a firebug who has just been paroled from prison after a lengthy stay.
Sent up the river for killing multiple people in a fire years ago, Hee seo has not changed his stripes; if anything, he’s gotten better at lying. Also, he’s become even more obsessed with fire, and while working at a hospital arranged by his not-so-bright psychiatrist, Hee seo develops a deadly sense of vigilantism. Using physically abused children in the hospital as inspiration, Hee seo has begun taking revenge on the perpetrators. Unfortunately while the angel of death is at work, Sang-woo and his firehouse are getting in the way, and as a result firefighters are getting killed.
I’m sure there was originally a good idea behind “Libera Me”. The screenplay seems to start out as a social commentary on firefighters as under appreciated by the people and the system until they’re needed, but this quickly gets discarded in favor of torched buildings and elaborate explosive ambushes. There is even an attempt to show the Hee seo character as human and not a complete villain, but of course it’s a little difficult to “feel” for Hee seo after he’s lured about a half dozen firefighters and about two dozen or so innocent people to their fiery deaths.
What “Libera Me” needs most is a leading man, or even a villain, with personality. This becomes a big problem because the film seems to enjoy spending more time with psycho Hee seo, who is dull and somber, instead of firefighter Sang-woo, who is also dull and somber, but not psychotic. Do you get the idea? These two guys have as much personality as day old bread. If Hee seo isn’t shuffling to and fro like a bad extra from a George Romero zombie movie, we’re forced to watch Sang-woo stand around with his eyes downcast as if he’s having trouble staying awake. With leading men like these two, burning buildings have never been more exciting.
If you like really big bright fires done right, then “Libera Me” is for you. And if you like Teen Slasher movies, then the film is also up your alley. The only thing missing is a hockey mask or some kind of prosthetics over the face of Seung-won Cha. The direction by Yun-ho Yang, along with cinematographer Jeong-min Seo (“This is Law”) takes off during the chaotic fire sequences, but fails to elicit anything but a yawn during all the other moments. The fact is, “Libera Me” just doesn’t have two hours worth of material in it, and by stretching out the running time the film has more than a few dead spots along the way.
The screenplay by Ji-na Yeo is most effective when it focuses on the firefighters and the firehouse. The trials and tribulations of these men is a story worth telling. In one scene, a fireman hurt in the line of duty is required to have additional insurance for life-saving surgery. In another, a fireman has to swallow his pride and admit that he can’t afford to buy dinner for his family in a nice restaurant. There’s also the familiar hazing of the new recruit, which despite being familiar, is actually very entertaining because it shows character and personality. But as soon as the Hee seo/firebug plots kick back in, all of the more interesting firemen storylines are thrown out the window.
“Libera Me” should have been about being an under appreciated firefighter in South Korea, not about a psycho firebug with trust issues. As a Teen Slasher, “Libera Me” works well enough. You have dumb authority figures who can’t figure out what day it is; a lead heroine who knows the truth, but because of her past no one in positions of authority will listen to her except the hero; and then you have a killer who seems to have his own “Star Trek” transporter, because he has the uncanny ability to be anywhere at anytime even if it defies logic.
Yun-ho Yang (director) / Ji-na Yeo (screenplay)
CAST: Min-su Choi …. Sang-woo Jo
Seung-won Cha …. Hee seo
Ji-tae Yu …. Hyun-tae Kim
Gyu-ri Kim …. Min-seong Hyun
Sang-Myeon Park …. Han-mo Park