Friday, July 08, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Boys Who Cried Wolf

If acting really constitutes lying, then Ji Wan-ju is the Korean Laurence Olivier. He gave up the stage, but he still does a strange kind of public performance as an escort, phony best friend, and miscellaneous real life role-player for hire. Usually, he stays on the right side of the law, but when he agrees to “act” as a witness in a murder investigation, he finds himself materially abetting a frame-up in Kim Jin-hwang’s The Boys Who Cried Wolf (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Ji always had a bad feeling about the gig, but his sister needed money to pay for their mother’s hospital bills. His new freelance client claims to be the corporate CEO mother of a murder victim. Supposedly, the killer is a loner orphan who will be released without eyewitness testimony linking him to the crime. However, Ji is rather rattled to meet the mother of the accused after giving his statement. Wracked with guilt, but reluctant to recant and risk legal consequences, Ji sets about investigating the murder himself.

By all accounts, the accused was the least likely suspect. Among his group of recent military discharges, he was maybe the most even-keeled one. Unfortunately, the deceased’s history of hazing his presumptive killer is clearly prejudicial. The quick-tempered Kwang-suk looks like a much more likely suspect, but his modest means could hardly support the conspiracy afoot. Further complicating matters, the suicide of a recent escort client brings Ji additional police attention, at the worst possible time.

Although Wolf definitely counts as a thriller, it is unusually gritty and understated. It could easily be adapted for the stage, but its street-level perspective lends the film greater urgency. Kim’s quietly grungy aesthetic is much closer to David Mamet than Alfred Hitchcock. Still, he keeps hurling one-darned-thing-after-another at Ji and earns serious points for originality with the profession of his string-pulling villain. Weirdly enough given its peerlessly indie credentials, Wolf is actually a refreshing counterpoint to the heavy-handed anti-corporate bias of other Korean films at this year’s festival.

Park Jong-hwan is almost too understated as Ji, but his delivery of the film’s kicker is tough to shake off. At least, Song Ha-joon brings ferocious energy and intensity as the edgy Kwang-suk. Cha Rae-hyoung is also entertainingly sleazy as Ji’s agency boss and pseudo-friend.

All relationships are indeed quite problematic in Wolf, but it is not a nihilistic film. In fact, it strenuously argues there a moral order to our world, while forgiving it characters myriad flaws, on humanistic grounds. As a result, it is all quite low-key, but compelling. Recommended for discerning audiences, The Boys Who Cried Wolf screens tomorrow (7/9) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.