South Korean cinema has carved out an incredible niche releasing thrillers tinged with a deliciously dark tone. From brutal revenge-fueled classics like Old Boy to soul-destroying crime thrillers often focused on serial killers like I Saw the Devil, these films have made a noticed and beloved impact on the genre that is here to stay. Kwon Oh-seung’s debut feature Midnight is poised to stand as the next great entry in a long line of beloved thrillers. Written and directed by Oh-seung, the film makes for an incredible first outing that shows complete mastery of the subtle craft needed to carefully compose this style of movie. If you love its contemporaries, then this is one movie to immediately seek out.
Midnight follows the lives of two separate women as their paths reluctantly cross a brazen serial killer working the streets of Seoul. So-jung (Kim Hye-yoon) lives a generally carefree life outside of her slightly overbearing musclebound brother Jong-tak (Park Hoon). Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) is a young deaf woman working an office job handling customer service via sign language. Along with her mother (Kil Hae-yeon), who is also deaf, they lead a simple happy life with dreams of saving up the money to go on an island getaway. Endangering the lives of all four is Do-sik (Wi Ha-jun), an interesting and complexly constructed serial killer who carries much of the film with his ability to switch between sinister charm and cold cruelty.
There is no better place to start than, like the opening of the film, with Do-sik’s nature as a killer. The first scene acts as something of a standalone taste of his usual MO as he stalks the streets with a small van obscuring his face with a cap, glasses, and facemask. We get time to see him be sickeningly playful as he tries to pick up a woman who missed a taxi and failing that attempt uses a body already in the van to lure her back thinking someone needs help. Later, we find him dressed rather sharply and speaking with the cops posing as a concerned passerby that noticed the killing. This act is viciously punctuated with an all too wicked and satisfied grin as the cops turn away to get to work, leaving him to walk away free from suspicion.
At his heart, Do-sik is the sort of overwhelmingly charismatic serial killer that draws to mind the likes of Ted Bundy. He can at one moment seem so kind and unassuming that almost anyone’s first reaction would be to find him likable. Yet, with this charm comes an unbearable arrogance. You can see it in the way he sneers after every moment where he manages to pass off one of his lies or with his abject frustration when a scenario ends up not playing out exactly as he planned. Take heart that they never really try to pull for any sympathy with his story, but he remains a well-reasoned character that, like many serial killers, despite all of his ability, he has some critical character flaw that ultimately charts his own downfall.
While the general plot may be pretty standard fare, if not derivative for veterans of this genre, I think it is the execution that really makes the film stand out so well. The natural way the stories weave together tells the sort of classic unfortunate nature of many true crime stories. By just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kyung-mi stumbles upon So-jung before the job is done and consequently prompts Do-sik to target both the woman and her mother, expanding his little game. There are also several films that will readily come to mind in comparison for those with a deep viewing history and these are probably fitting. Regardless, I think Midnight does some things in such a unique way that it makes it worth checking out.
The first, which the film is already being compared to in various promotional hype, is Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser from 2008 which also focuses on a charismatic serial killer seemingly able to worm his way out of any situation. It is a film that I respect, but personally have never been too fond of. Shared between both films are quite a number of extended chase sequences. In Midnight, however, the cinematography elevates these moments above much of its contemporaries. There is a certain style that gets reused in multiple sequences where the camera will trail Do-sik while he is in pursuit after his victims, yet it is slightly off-centered diagonally allowing you to get a long shot all the way down whatever side street they are running through. These moments are gorgeous and they are at one moment stunning while at the same time adding a sense of disorientation to the viewer which helps that much more with building the tension.
Furthermore, the film cranks up the tension with aplomb. Again, similar to The Chaser, there is a rather extended scene where Do-sik is on hand with Kyung-mi and her mother at a police station as they try to sort things out. He has easily inserted himself into the situation dressed up in his suit and pretending to be So-jung’s concerned brother. Do-sik manages to take advantage of the police on hand and their inability to communicate easily with Kyung-mi to control the narrative and royally lead the investigation astray. This drags on for so long that the tension reaches a near overbearing point of exhaustion. It gets even worse when Do-sik manages to convince the cops to subdue Jong-tak when he has the killer dead to rights. His mastery of controlling those around him is always believable, but at times is used so wickedly that it becomes almost impossible to stand. Some of the aforementioned chase sequences also have such close near misses that viewers who are easily drawn into these types of films will find themselves holding their breath right alongside the characters.
The other apt film comparison in my mind is Mike Flannagan’s Hush from 2016 which focused on a home invasion story centered around a deaf woman living in a remote and secluded area. There is praise abound for that film’s use of audio and it is no surprise that with the same sort of potential hook Midnight makes use of some incredibly effective sound design. Early incidental scenes at Kyung-mi’s office shift between the muted quiet of her perspective where we can only see the lips of her coworkers moving and then bursts of the actual dialog that is going on around her. Two of our leads being deaf is also worked into the plot well as a means to drive the tension. In her car, Kyung-mi uses a device that details peaks in sound which helps with noticing situations around her that might not be so obviously apparent. In their home, we find lights that blink on in response to noise. Both of these are used several times as Do-sik stalks mother and daughter to give signs of his presence even though they cannot hear and he remains hidden out of view. Inside their apartment, they manage to pull off several scenes where the killer creeps along in the background barely out of view that end up being quite effective.
Midnight also manages to work in some harshly compelling social commentary hung around this theme as well. During a business dinner, Kyung-mi’s coworkers casually make jokes about her thinking she can’t understand them. She amusingly ends up insulting them all pretty brutally in sign language which they actually can’t comprehend. This takes a darker turn later in the film as at every turn people’s inability to understand, or even slow down enough to give them the time to relate their situation, continually allows Do-sik’s rampage to continue. During the climax of the film, Kyung-mi leads the killer to a populated downtown area hoping that with so many eyes present there will be no way for him to easily get at her. To her horror, she finds no one willing to help her and most simply decide to brush her off as crazy. Which, of course, Do-sik capitalizes on crafting a new lie which eventually prompts some off-duty soldiers to become unknowingly complicit in his crimes by turning her over.
It is an incredible moment that pulls at the heart and it will be sure to leave anyone with an ounce of compassion shouting at the screen in frustration that not a single person takes the time to sincerely help out. Having this as a theme deeply strengthens its impact. The film would function perfectly fine just as a well-constructed thriller, but this extra layer of focus manages to add some greater weight without ever becoming overbearing with its message. There is a terror found with silence. They illustrate it overtly through the film’s excellent sound design, but perhaps the actual horror is found with those willing to remain silent in the face of pure evil more content to not get involved and brush things away than offer even a shred of understanding and a sense of what is right and wrong.
While the film never manages to sink to the depraved depths that the most extreme of the genre has to offer, there is one particular stand-out moment during the middle of the film that plunges into some pretty dark territory. Jong-tak seems poised early on to be the out and out hero of the film. Working as a security guard, he is incredibly fit and his early encounters with Do-sik show us that in a direct confrontation the killer just can’t cut it against him. So after finding himself cornered, Do-sik offers Jong-tak a simple bargain: he will tell him the location of his sister and let her go free if he will simply turn his gaze and leave Do-sik to finish off his victim. For all the tension that builds up through the many chases, watching the emotion that runs across the face of each character as Jong-tak has to weigh this decision is heart-wrenching.
Luckily, Kyung-mi is an incredibly resourceful lead. At every turn, she puts up one hell of a fight against Do-sik and never really caves to his many taunts and attempts to break down her spirit. Jin Ki-joo’s performance in the role is worthy of so much more praise than I can give just in simple words. The end falls down to a clever executed twist that is better left experienced firsthand, but it is Kyung-mi’s sharp mind and quick thinking that allows her to ultimately turn things around and begin exploiting the flaws in Do-sik’s behavior. For that matter, every single member of the leading cast is excellent and everyone involved really brings their best in every scene.
Midnight is an incredibly beautiful and well-executed thriller. It may not land as particularly unique, especially for connoisseurs who are experts with these kinds of South Korean thrillers, but it rides on the talent of those involved and the masterful craft on display. Do-sik makes for a vile antagonist that viewers will love to hate even as they watch him mastermind circles around every person he talks to, so much so that it feels all the more rewarding with every near miss and slight victory Kyung-mi is able to pull over him. Pairing an extremely enjoyably paced thriller that has some of the most expertly built tension among its peers, with a bit of thoughtful commentary on the casually cruel way we can be all too oblivious of those around us, leaves Midnight as one of the strongest first features I have had the pleasure of reviewing. This is genre cinema at its very best and I will be eagerly anticipating whatever Kwon Oh-seung decides to create next.
Midnight was screened as part of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. The festival runs virtually from Aug. 5 – 25, 2021.
Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.