“Puzzle”, which marks the debut of short film director Kim Tae Kyung is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the production completely eschewed any kind of publicity, with a secretive shoot which kept the plot under wraps. Unfortunately this move, presumably designed to make some kind of statement about the massive amounts regularly spent on complex advertising campaigns in the modern Korean film industry, not only didn’t pay off, but also failed to intrigue the public enough to translate into box office takings. This should definitely not be taken as a reflection upon the quality of the film itself, as “Puzzle” is an entertaining, slickly made mystery thriller that deserves to find an audience, arguably more so than some of the rather bloated productions which rack up success solely as a result of their marketing muscle.
The film begins at full tilt, with a man being shot and burned by an unseen assailant in an abandoned factory, before rushing into a wonderfully efficient bank heist in which two robbers make off with a safety deposit box. The thieves, along with two other members of their gang arrive at the factory, only to be confronted by the sight of the corpse, which just happens to be that of another collaborator. Their plans thrown into turmoil, the men start to argue amongst themselves, with the details behind the robbery emerging in flashbacks, including the key facts that they are all complete strangers and that none of them actually know who they are working for, having been lured into the scheme by an unseen mastermind. Needless to say, the stress begins to show as they try to figure out what to do, and as the skeletons start to tumble from the closets, betrayal and violence inevitably ensue.
It will probably take most viewers less than five minutes to realise that they are watching a Korean version of “The Usual Suspects” by way of “Reservoir Dogs”, though such comparisons are by no means detrimental, as “Puzzle” manages to provide an effective cinematic enigma of its own for the viewer to solve. Director Kim actively encourages this, throwing in all kinds of clues throughout and by utilising a fractured narrative which gradually reveals the characters’ motivations, as well as providing tantalising glimpses of what are obviously pivotal events. As a result, the film is engaging from the start, and makes for gripping viewing as the tension slowly mounts.
As with most films which spend most of their running time building towards a supposedly shattering conclusion, the ending of “Puzzle” is somewhat anticlimactic and doesn’t quite bring together all of the narrative strands in a truly satisfying manner, though it does at least manage to avoid feeling either forced or frustratingly ambiguous. Thankfully, although the film does feature a last scene twist, Kim manages to avoid hanging everything on the effectiveness of this one gambit, which itself works not only to provide an answer to the question of who is behind the plot’s myriad schemes, but as a cipher with which to unlock the rest of the film.
Indeed, even once the final credits have rolled, the viewer still has a fair bit of work to do before all becomes clear. This certainly gives “Puzzle” a cerebral boost, and Kim is to be applauded for making a film which actually requires some thought rather than following the usual practice of spoon-feeding answers and clumsily underlining every single aspect of the plot. His direction is stylish, without ever being too flashy, and there are a few good scenes of split screen work which actually work well to involve the viewer further in the events.
Clocking in at just an hour and a half, the film is short and fast paced, and although most of the running time is taken up with scenes of characters trying to interrogate each other, there is a fair bit of action, some of which is surprisingly bloody. Most of the proceedings take place in the warehouse itself, which Kim makes good use of, shooting from a variety of angles to highlight the growing sense of claustrophobia felt by the increasingly trapped characters.
“Puzzle” offers the viewer the best of both worlds — on one hand experiencing the bewildering and increasingly taut events of the film along with the characters, whilst also being invited to sit back and treat the proceedings more dispassionately, as a riddle to be solved. It works well on both levels, with Kim managing to fashion what amounts to a genuinely captivating work of cinematic cunning.
Tae-kyeong Kim (director) / Tae-kyeong Kim, Yeo-su Yun (screenplay)
CAST: Seok-cheon Hong …. Noh
Jin-mo Ju …. Ryu
Hyun-sung Kim …. Jung
Seong-kun Mun …. Hwan
Jun-seok Park …. Kyu