Tuesday, November 12, 2019

SDAFF ’19: The 12th Suspect

The coffee is bitter and the conversation is depressing. That makes this post-war Seoul tea house the perfect haunt for moopy artists and poets. Unfortunately, their brooding will be interrupted by murder and intrigue in director-screenwriter Ko Myoung-sung’s The 12th Suspect, which screens during the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Most of the artists and literary types patronizing the Oriental Café assume this is just another day, but they are about learn one of their colleagues, poet Baek Doo-hwan, has been murdered. Kim Ki-chae, the investigating officer, makes it clear they are all suspects. However, it is rather odd that he is working the case, because he is with the counter-intelligence service, not the civil police. He also has more revelations to drop, including the involvement of feminist student-activist Choi Yoo-jung, whom many of the patrons carried a torch for.

12th Suspect
starts out as an appealing throwback to old fashioned multi-suspect Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, but it takes a rather ugly and stilted detour into anti-anti-Communist politics during the goodwill-killing second act. However, the third act revelations dig deep into Korea’s tragic history and largely salvage the film with their power and surprise.

Arguably, Kim Sang-kyung comes on too strong and too sinister right from the start as Kim, prematurely tipping us to his villainous nature. On the other hand, Heo Sung-tae and Park Sun-young are acutely human and complex as the café proprietors, prickly No Suk-hyun and his no-nonsense wife, Jang Sun-hwa.

Aside from a few flashbacks, Ko confines the action entirely within the café, but he skillfully exploits the claustrophobic setting to build tension. He also gets key assists from cinematographer Park Jong-chol and composer Koo Jaw-an, who give it a look and sound worthy of golden age Hollywood thrillers.

Granted, Ko’s hand is a little too heavy for his own good. Nevertheless, he pulls off some interesting twists. Recommended on-balance for fans of traditional mysteries and revisionist espionage thrillers, The 12th Suspect screens tomorrow (11/13), as an “Asian Pop!” selection of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.