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“The Neighbors” is another Korean serial killer drama in which a psycho snatches children and keeps them imprisoned in his basement, an enduringly popular subject on the country’s screens. Based on an internet comic by Kang Pool (“Hello Schoolgirl”), the film was directed by first timer Kim Whee, who previously scripted the popular thrillers “Haeundae” and “Midnight FM”. Aiming for suspense and clever plotting rather than homicidal gore, the film proved popular with critics, actor Kim Sung Kyun following up his award winning turn in “Nameless Gangster” with success at the 49th Daejong Awards.
The film follows a fractured, flashback laden narrative which revolves around the murder of a young girl called Yeo Seon (child actress Kim Sae Ron, who impressed in the awesome “The Man from Nowhere”), whose mutilated body is found stuffed into a red suitcase near her apartment complex. With the residents living in fear, the killer (Kim Sung Kyun) goes about his business right under their noses, cleaning up any evidence that leads back to his basement downstairs. While Yeo Seon’s stepmother Kim Yoon Jin (“Heartbeat”) grieves, blaming herself for not picking her up from school on the fateful night, her neighbors start to suspect that the murderer is living in the building, a pizza delivery boy (Do Ji Han, “My Way”), security guard with a secret (Cheon Ho Jin, “The Unjust”), convicted thug (Ma Dong Seok, “Nameless Gangster”) and the salesman who sold him the body dumping suitcase (Lim Ha Ryong, “Good Morning President”) slowly piecing together the puzzle. Meanwhile, the killer starts stalking his next victim, another young girl who lives in the same building and who bears a striking resemblance to Yeo Seon (also played by Kim Sae Ron).
“The Neighbors” is quite similar in many ways to Kang Pool’s “APT”, brought to the screen with reasonable success by Ahn Byeong Ki back in 2006, dealing with the same theme of evil lurking in an innocuous seeming residential complex and the same kind of twists and character revelations. Though the film is very much a high concept affair, basically hinging on the suspense generated by the question as to when someone will uncover the killer’s identity, Kim does a great job of working in lots of subplots, for the most part keeping things taut and gripping.
Playing on a Hitchcockian sense of dark dramatic irony, the film is at its best when bringing its characters tantalisingly close to the truth or to danger, keeping them in the dark while allowing the viewer full knowledge of its horrors from the start. Though there’s a fair reliance on coincidence, the script is pleasingly intelligent and well-constructed, and throws in some interesting moral dilemmas as the various players pull things together and face up to their own troubles. This adds some welcome depth, or at least a few extra twists, and though there’s little doubt where things are heading, it makes for an entertaining ride and even works in a few surprises, which is more than can be said for many other similarly themed efforts of late.
Kim doesn’t quite manage to push the film up from being good to great, mainly due to his insistence on delving a little too deeply into some rather obvious guilt symbolism, visions of poor dead Yeo Seon haunting several of the characters a few times too many. This tends to slow things down here and there, and the film would certainly have been better served by sticking to drama and tension. This aside, Kim’s direction is solid and effective, showing good knowledge of the thriller genre by serving up a few solid shocks, splashes of gore and ruthless deaths along the way. The cast also help to give the material a lift, as while most of the characters come across mainly as pieces on Kim’s chessboard, all are on good form, Kim Sung Kyun in particular convincing as the slimy and sinister murderer, a wretched brute far removed from the glamourized serial killer types who often populate such films.
All of this is enough to mark “The Neighbors” as an above average Korean serial killer outing, and an intelligently plotted piece of genre fun. Though Kim Whee makes a couple of first time director type errors, the ensemble cast and complex script help to keep the viewer ensnared, and it’s definitely one worth checking out for fans.
Hwi Kim (director) / Pool Kang (comic story), Hwi Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Ho-jin Cheon … Pyo / Jong-Rok
Ji-han Do … Ahn Sang-Yoon
Cheon Ho-Jin … Pyo Jong-Rok
Cha Hyeon-woo … Detective Lee
Young-nam Jang … Ha Tae-Seon
In-gi Jeong … Kim Hong-Jung
Yunjin Kim … Kyung-Hee