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Directed by Hong Ki Sun, “The Case of Itaewon Homicide” is a slice of true life crime mystery based upon a highly controversial incident back in 1997 in which a student was unfortunately murdered by one of a pair of friends, each of whom just happens to accuse the other of the deed. Fact based dramas have been increasingly popular in Korean cinemas, and here Hong certainly makes an effort to follow the events very closely, whilst of course adding in a few thrills along the way. The film is also of interest for it’s playing out largely in the English language, with the suspects in question being an American-Korean, and the mixed race son of an American soldier – played by Shin Seung Hwan and Jang Keun Suk (“The Happy Life”) respectively.
The film starts with college student Jong Pil Jo (Song Jong Ki) being stabbed to death in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant by an unknown assailant. The police soon have the number one suspect in custody, the tough looking soldier’s son Pearson (Jang Keun Suk). He in turn implicates his friend Alex (Shin Seung Hwan), and since both of them were seen following Jong into the bathroom, either could potentially be the killer. Heading up the investigation is prosecutor Park (Jung Jin Young, “King and the Clown”), who has the unenviable job of weighing up all the conflicting evidence and deciding who is guilty, a task made all the more difficult thanks to pressure from the families of the accused and the victim, not to mention complications within his own department.
With “The Case of Itaewon Homicide” director Hong certainly makes an effort to keep things grounded, believable and factually accurate, and the film does indeed have the authentic feel of a police investigation. The narrative progresses mainly through interviews with the two suspects, employing well paced flashbacks to bring more evidence to light, and to increasingly muddy the waters. The film basically hinges on the question of whether Pearson or Alex is guilty, and Hong does a reasonable job of switching the focus between the two, essentially letting things play out from the perspective of the beleaguered Park. Neither of the possible killers are particularly sympathetic or pleasant characters, and as such it is never made obvious which is the more likely to be guilty – or indeed if justice will be done. Although of course any viewers aware of what actually happened in real life are unlikely to be surprised, the conclusion and its many twists are well handled and the film is generally tense throughout.
Hong’s direction is pleasingly matter of fact, which adds to the air of gritty realism, and he manages to convince without ever letting the film become too dry – no small feat, especially during the latter courtroom sequences, which basically revolve around long speeches going over familiar ground, and detailed descriptions of the various key pieces of evidence. This does involve getting into some fairly obscure forensic aspects of the case, such as the direction of the victim’s arterial blood spray, but it makes for fascinating, engaging viewing. The pace is fast, and though some of the flashbacks are a little unnecessary and a touch manipulative, the film is suitably hardboiled and tight.
The only real problem with the film perhaps inevitably comes with its English language acting, some of which is distractingly amateurish. Whilst Jang Keun Suk performs very well as the sullen Pearson, and Shin Seung Hwan is passable as the more cartoonish Alex, the supporting cast, a mixture of Korean and Western actors, are awful, and are not helped by a script which mainly consists of stereotypical US gangsta chat and an incredible overuse of the word ‘damn’. To be fair, cultural and language difficulties do play an important role, and so perhaps Hong was happy enough with this kind of exaggeration, though since a lot hinges on which of the characters said a particular phrase, leading to lots of repetition during the flashbacks, it does become rather grating.
Thankfully, this doesn’t detract from the proceedings too much, and “The Case of Itaewon Homicide” stands as a gripping, unpretentious crime drama. With the case itself being fascinating and tragic, Hong manages to keep things on the right side of exploitation, and not only entertains, but offers an intriguing look into the workings of the Korean justice system.
Hong Ki-seon (director) / Lee Maeng-yoo (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong Jin-yeong, Jang Geun-seok, Sin Seung-hwan, Oh Kwang-rok, Ko Chang-seok, Kim Joong-ki