Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Terror Live: The Scoop that Kills

Yoon Young-hwa is sort of like the Korean Dan Rather.  The disgraced former television anchor has been demoted to a lowly radio call-in host.  However, when a domestic terrorist calls into his show, the “journalist” tries to leverage his scoop into a career comeback.  Alas, nothing goes according to plan in Kim Byung-woo’s The Terror Live (trailer here), now playing in New York.

At first, Yoon assumes the caller is pesky crank, but for some reason his producer is unable to dump his call.  When the mystery man threatens to blow-up the nearby bridge, Yoon dares him to follow through—and he does.  Capitalizing on his direct line to the terrorist, Yoon negotiates a return to the anchor’s chair with the sleazy SNC news director.  However, he quickly realizes he is playing a far more dangerous game than he realized. 

For starters, there is the explosive device the mad bomber somehow slipped into his earpiece.  While the initial explosions scrupulously avoided human casualty, the second round left an isolated section of the bridge precariously listing on its caisson.  Amongst the bystanders trapped there is Yoon’s ex-wife, Lee Ji-soo, a fellow reporter.  Yoon finds himself caught between the news director, who orders Yoon to provoke a spectacularly tragic finish and Park Jung-min, the national security official imploring him to stall for time.

It is hard to judge from Terror Live whether Koreans have more contempt for journalists or politicians.  Probably the former, but it is a close call.  Neither displays much integrity throughout the film, but Yoon will find himself on the business end of some cosmic comeuppance as a result of his past sins.

Korean mega-star Ha Jung-woo (who was all kinds of bad in The Berlin File and Nameless Gangster) once again is quite the intense anti-hero as the existentially torn Yoon.  He largely carries the confined space-pressure cooker film singlehandedly.  Unfortunately, only Jeon Hye-jin provides him any measurable support as the tough but seemingly decent Park.  In contrast, Lee Kyoung-young is eye-roll worthy as the ridiculously oily news boss.  Still, he makes more of an impression than the rest of the blandly anonymous cast.

To an extent, you have to give Kim credit for not backing down.  He steadily raises the stakes and never shies away from the enormity of the terrorist attacks.  Frankly, the sight of bomb damaged buildings slowly teetering over might be too much for New Yorkers with particularly vivid memories of September 11th.  Many more viewers will also find Kim’s third act nihilism—unsubtly implying a bombing spree is not such an unreasonable response to political opportunism—rather problematic as well.

Clearly, Kim understands how to stage a hold-the-line thriller.  His execution is strong, but his ethical implications and character motivations are questionable.  TV journalists might be pond scum, but the SNC network big wigs often just seem perversely villainous.  A frustrating example of a potentially taut terrorism drama that implodes on itself, The Terror Live is now showing in New York at the AMC Empire.