Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Witness: A Korean Rear Window with Social Commentary

The investigation conducted by Kitty Genovese’s brother, chronicled in his own similarly titled documentary, reveals her Kew Garden neighbors were far more responsible and proactive than the New York Times reported. Nevertheless, the Genovese urban legend deeply informs this characteristically dark and moody Korean thriller. Han Sang-hoon will indeed look the other way when a woman is murdered in his courtyard, but karma will punish him severely for his moment of cowardice in Jo Kyu-jang’s The Witness (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Han has a bossy but loving wife, an adorable young daughter, and a not inconsiderable mortgage on their new flat, so he has a lot to lose. He is a schlubby salaryman, not a hero, so when he comes home from a late night of mandatory drinking with co-workers, he freezes when he spies a serial killer dispatching his latest victim. Unfortunately, Han gives himself away through his clumsiness. Thus, begins a game of cat and mouse. Han keeps hoping it will all go away. However, the stakes really start to escalate when another intimidated witness approaches him, hoping to come clean with the police together.

In addition to the Kitty Genovese myth, The Witness also riffs on Rear Window, but it still manages to be entirely its own beast. Jo devises some fresh twists and grows the tension organically out of Korea’s more rigid social norms. This is a story just about everyone can relate to, but it is particularly nightmarish for a Korean everyman like Han.

On paper, Han might not sound like a flashy role, but Lee Sung-min hits it out of the park anyway. This is a career year for him, following up his awards-worthy work in The Spy Gone North, but this is a starring turn that might just be his defining desperate-plugger role. It is also rewarding to see Kim Sang-ho make the most of his serious roles. He is terrific here as Jang Jae-jeop, the earnest, honest, and often embarrassed (by department incompetence) detective investigating the murder. Kwak Si-yang is creepy as all get out as the killer, while young Park Bom will make viewers want to jump into the film to protect her, as Han’s daughter Eun-ji.

The Witness dropped into theaters this weekend without much fanfare, but it is absolutely dynamite. This is exactly the sort of morally murky, one-gosh-darned-thing-after-another thriller Korean cinema seems to have a competitive advantage at producing. Jo shows he has mad chops when it comes to the serial killer genre, but also manages to drop some heavy social commentary in the process. Very highly recommended, The Witness is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.