Far East Film Festival 20

Udine Italy April 20th/ April 28th 2018
The Film Festival For Popular Asian Cinema
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
Sunday, April 23, time 9.45 PM


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Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-woong, The Handmaiden) is a physician working in an up-and-coming clinic in a newly developed rural city. Quiet, bookish and somewhat neurotic, he turns out to be a recent divorcée, renting a small flat above the neighborhood butcher shop run by the openly creepy Sung-geun (Kim Dae-myung, Pandora). One day, Seung-hoon performs a colonoscopy on the butcher shop’s half-senile grandpa (Shin Goo, The Foul King), and overhears the latter unconsciously mumbling something about chopping up a human body. Soon after, as the ice begins to melt around the Han River, the headless torso of a woman is found. Seung-hoon becomes increasingly nervous, suspecting his erstwhile patient and Sung-geun of being a pair of Bluebeards who have murdered their respective spouses and dispatched their bodies like racks of beef.

Bluebeard, the Korean title of which is “Ice Melting” – a more apt metaphor for the process in which the film’s weird mystery is resolved –marks the return after 14 years of director Lee Soo-youn, whose debut The Uninvited is one of the creepiest Korean horror films of the new millennium. Lee’s personal touch is easy to spot in Bluebeard: sharp observations – through DP Uhm Hye-jeong’s (one of the few female cinematographers in the South Korea movie scene) lens and LS Jeong Hae-ji’s lighting – of the clinically modern urban environment, punctuated by gruesome and surreal visions such as the blood-soaked abattoir, slimy close-ups of the innards of human body, and a headless torso twitching as fragments of ice dissolve around it. There is also a certain pathological quality to the main characters, exploding into violence due to long-suppressed desire or guilt; jagged flashbacks and other editorial tricks that play with the viewer’s perceptions of reality; all ably supported by a subtle, minimalist music score (Jeong Yong-jin, Hong Sang-soo’s favorite composer).  
Happily, Lee has lost none of her thriller-maker’s acumen: Bluebeard holds its interest as an intriguing mystery, even when we recognize that there are a few major potholes in the narrative path. For The Uninvited, she squeezed out of Jun Ji-hyun (Gianna Jun) one of the latter’s best performances, and does not disappoint with either Cho Jin-woong or Kim Dae-myung. Cho can play uproarious, high camp (A Hard Day) or timid and petty-bourgeois-endearing (Hwayi: A Monster Boy), but his Seung-hoon is a much more complex portrayal, low-key yet laced with remorse and hostility. The emotionally raw scenes of Seung-hoon and his divorced wife (Yoon Se-ah, Shadows in the Palace, also excellent) attempting a reconciliation is a case in point: one usually does not get to witness such powerful scenes of acting in a flashback sequence in a mystery thriller. Kim Dae-myung is also effectively subdued as the poker-faced butcher, never quite revealing the real thoughts going on behind his beady-sleepy eyes, all the while going through the motions of being a friendly landlord.

Bluebeard may be marred by its needlessly meandering narrative – the movie could have been trimmed of about 25 minutes – and the extended coda, probably meant to comment on the ubiquity of surveillance tools in modern society, but which feels like a concession to genre conventions. But it is a welcome return to form from a long-silent New Korean Cinema director. Here’s hoping director Lee Soo-youn returns soon with another intriguing thriller or fantasy – ideally the long-gestating “mermaid monster” project that she has been trying to mount for years.
Kyu Hyun Kim
Film director: 
Lee Soo-youn
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