Friday, July 26, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Idol

There is nothing like an auto accident to stall a promising political career. Just ask Teddy Kennedy. At least he survived to become a national punch-line. Koo Myung-hui does not have the luxury of running as a Kennedy in Massachusetts, but technically, he was not a party to the accident. It was his horrible son Yo-han behind the wheel. His callous and reckless behavior will ignite a deluge of agonizing moral dilemmas in Lee Su-jin’s Idol, which won the Cheval Noir Awards for best feature and best actor at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Koo was feeling pretty good about the chances for his anticipated gubernatorial campaign, until he returned home to find his son and wife washing blood of the family car. Then he noticed the body in the duffel bag. His wife is in full cover-up mode, like Hillary Clinton deleting emails, but Koo will not play along. Instead, he has them return the body to the scene of the crime and then forces the entitled Yo-han to turn himself in. They just fudge with the timeline a little.

Of course, things get complicated when reports of a witness surface. Suspecting the death [or murder] of his grown autistic son will not be a priority for cops and prosecutors, the victim’s father, Yoo Joong-sik hires a private investigator. Things really get complicated when it is revealed the mystery witness is Ryun-hwa, his son’s arranged wife, an illegal alien from China. Everyone wants to find her, including the maybe not so morally upright Koo.

Okay, so we should all be able to accept the notion politicians will do some pretty reprehensible things to preserve their power by now. However, what makes Idol so interesting is that it shows how far everybody will go to get what they want, as well as the lines they just won’t cross. All the major characters in this film are capable of some pretty extreme actions, but there are also things they just refuse to do. That isn’t necessarily so for some of the minor characters, of whom there are arguably too many. Lee has the questionable habit of introducing new faces very late in the game, just to advance the narrative.

In a somewhat unconventional turn of events, Han Seok-kyu and Sul Kyung-gu shared Fantasia’s best actor honors for their respective turns as Koo and Yoo, but it rather makes sense. Both performances are excellent and there is a weird symbiotic push-pull dynamic shared by their characters. Koo is the less showy role, but Han still has moments that genuinely shock and surprise. Nevertheless, Sul just burns a hole in viewers’ souls with his portrayal of Yoo’s righteous rage and bitter impotency.

Chun Woo-hee’s work as Ryun-hwa also perfectly fits with the film’s ambiguous tone, yo-yoing from femme fatale villainy to frightened vulnerability from scene to scene and moment to moment. Plus, Yo Seung-mok and Hyun Bong-sik do what character actors do best, adding grit and color as Yoo’s investigator and the honest cop working the case.

Idol is a tense film fueled by blistering anger at political corruption and social iniquity, but it has some ragged edges. Motivations are often questionable and sometimes personalities can change drastically for no clearly established reason. Nevertheless, its boldness is bracing, like good, strong aftershave. Recommended for fans of socially conscious thrillers, Idol should have extensive festival screenings ahead of it, after winning the Cheval Noir at this year’s Fantasia.