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“Perfect Number” sees Korea turning to Japan for inspiration, an adaptation of the acclaimed Higashino Keigo novel “Yogisha X no Kenshin” (“The Devotion of Suspect X”), which previously made it to the big screen in the popular 2008 film “Suspect X” from Nishitani Hiroshi. The Korean version comes from actress and director Bang Eun Jin, whose last outing behind the camera was the revenge thriller “Princess Aurora” in 2005, and who won Best Supporting Actress at the Grand Bell Awards back in 2002 for her role in Kim Ki Duk’s “Address Unknown”. A tense, and in many ways quite unique crime drama, the film stars popular and versatile actor Ryoo Seung Bum (“The Unjust”) in the lead, supported by Lee Yo Won (“May 18”) and Jo Jin Woong (“Nameless Gangster”).
Ryoo plays Suk Go, a reclusive 30-something math teacher, who lives next door to the lovely Hwa Sun (Lee Yo Won) and her young niece Yoon Ah (Kim Bo Ra), watching her with quiet adoration. When one day Hwa Sun’s violent ex-husband turns up and attacks her, she and Yoon Ah accidentally kill him, Suk Go overhearing the incident through the wall. Instead of going to the police, he offers to help, disposing of the body and setting her up an elaborate alibi and cover-up story. Although this seems to work, a determined detective called Min Bum (Jo Jin Woong), who just happens to be a childhood friend of Suk Go, finds it difficult to believe her innocence, and sets out to try and work out the truth, attempting to unravel his carefully planned web of deception and misdirection.
“Perfect Number” is a film packed with twists and which relies to a large extent upon certain revelations, and although this review will remain as spoiler free as possible, for viewers who wish to remain virgin, the bottom line is that though different and slightly inferior to the Japanese version and source material, it remains a fascinating and thoughtful psycho-drama that’s handsomely made and very much worth checking out. Bang Eun Jin certainly offers a contrasting take on the source material, taking what was at heart a fairly cold and intellectual look at the effects of what might be love on an exceptionally rational mind, and turning it into something far more emotional and melodramatic. This is pretty much par for the course for Korean cinema, and so the film’s focus on Suk Go’s romantic yearnings for Hwa Sun shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Though this does make for a few over the top scenes here and there, complete with swelling music and heart-string tugging, it thankfully doesn’t undermine the central mystery and narrative cat and mouse too much, and to be fair, Bang does manage to make things reasonably moving, especially towards the end.
Whether or not this is appropriate is largely up to the viewer, as to an extent, the impact of “Perfect Number” comes thanks to its moral ambiguities and how the character of Suk Go is interpreted, and on this score there’s no denying that the Korean version lacks the brilliance and punch of the Japanese. While on the one hand his yearnings for Hwa Sun and his actions in defending her might seem heartfelt and caring, on the other they could be interpreted as stalker-esque or the as the behaviour of a very troubled man. Certainly, some of his actions and the lengths he go to are extreme, and for some this will definitely give the film a creepy and sinister edge, even when all of its cards are finally on the table. This isn’t to say that this ambiguity is a bad thing by any means, as the film grips either way, with a fiercely clever puzzle of a plot that challenges and intrigues throughout. Bang is a very talented director who really should be making more films, and though the pace is deliberate there’s always plenty of intrigue and suspense, not to mention some superb visuals and well-orchestrated set pieces.
Bang also manages to get the best out of her stars, Ryoo Seung Bum putting in a stunning, nearly unrecognisable turn in the lead role that’s very far removed indeed than his usual larger than life characters. While to an extent his effectiveness will only serve to make Suk Go even more of a possibly psychotic oddball for many viewers, there’s no denying the power of his performance, and it’s very rewarding to see the actor stepping outside of his comfort zone. Lee Yo Won does a similarly sterling job as the abused and understandably confused Hwa Sun, as does Jo Jin Woong, helping to give the film both gravitas and painful humanity.
This all combines to make “Perfect Number” a superior and highly original suspenser, with well-written characters, cunning twists and a strong central performance that stays in the memory long after the credits have rolled. Though its melodrama and romance angle may not sit too comfortably with some and though Bang Eun Jin doesn’t quite manage the same impact as “Suspect X”, it’s easily one of the most thoughtful and frankly disturbing meditations on love for some time from Korea.
Eun-jin Pang (director) / Keigo Higashino (novel)
CAST: Cho Jin-Woong … Detective Min-Bum
Yoon-Seong Kim … (Sang-joon)
Yo Won Lee … Hwa-Sun
Kwak Min-ho … Cheol-min
Park Jung Pyo … Doctor
Seung-beom Ryu … Suk-Go