Monday, August 23, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Midnight

This Korean film could complete a “see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil” trilogy with Wait Until Dark and Mute Witness, while maintaining the same level of quality.  In this case, Kyung-mi and her mother are deaf. They are accustomed to being patronized and dismissed by society, but that makes them particularly vulnerable when a serial killer starts stalking them. However, the women are more resilient than he expects in screenwriter-director Kwon Oh-seung’s thriller, Midnight, which screens in-person again tomorrow, as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Kyung-mi gets by okay as a special sign-language customer service rep, living with her seamstress mother. Unfortunately, after a late night at work, they accidentally witness a masked serial killer abducting So Yong, the younger sister of her guardian, Jong Tak, a tough cop recently discharged from military service. Initially, the predatory Do-shik tries to dispose of them at the scene, but when they manage to summon the dumb local coppers, he successfully dons his mild-mannered civilian persona, claiming to also be a concerned family member of a missing person. Unfortunately, this allows him to get close to enough to Kyung-mi and her mother to learn things like their address.

Baby-faced Do-shik (chillingly portrayed by Wi Ha-jun) is one of the creepiest, most monstrous serial killers seen on film, since maybe the contemporary Korean milestones,
The Chaser and I Saw the Devil. There is also a good deal of social commentary in Midnight, regarding the way the cops and society in general treat the deaf, but instead of detracting from the suspense, it actually intensifies it.

Jin Ki-joo is absolutely terrific as Kyung-mi. Her performance is scrupulously realistic and not the slightest bit cringey. Likewise, Gil Hae-yeon is totally down-to-earth and believably terrified as her mother. Wi just radiates pure, clammy evil as Do-shik, while Park Hoon is quite compelling as the conflicted and guilt-ridden Jong Tak.

Once again, South Korean cinema demonstrates its competitive advantage when it comes to serial killer thrillers.
Midnight is a white-knuckle ride, but the way Kwon presents the characters’ deafness never feels exploitative. They come across as real people, who deserve to be heard, regardless of the circumstances.

As thrillers go,
Midnight is about as effective as the genre gets. Even Kyung-mi’s old back-alley neighborhood, which has been hollowed-out in advance of a planned redevelopment, looks lonely and sinister. Highly recommended, Midnight screens again tomorrow (8/24), as an in-person screening at this year’s Fantasia.