South Korea, 2019, 104’, Korean
Directed by: Lee Sang-geun
Script: Lee Sang-geun
Photography (color): Kim Il-yeon
Editing: Lee Gang-hee
Art Direction: Seo Ju-yeon
Producers: Kang Hye-jeong, Ryoo Seung-wan, Baek Hyun-ik
Cast: Jo Jeong-seok (Yong-nam), Im Yoon-ah (Eui-joo), Goh Doo-sim (mother), Park In-hwan (father), Kim Ji-young (Jung-hyun), Kang Ki-young (Manager Koo)
Date of First Release in Territory: July 31st, 2019
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
Yong-nam is considered an embarrassment by his three elder sisters and even his grade-school nephew, partly due to his inability to find gainful employment. Put to a series of menial jobs for his mother’s 70th birthday party at a schlocky local banquet hall, he is reunited with the object of his college-day infatuation, Eui-joo (Im Yoon-ah, better known as Yoona of the world-famous K-pop group Girl’s Generation). It turns out that despite their awkward memories of misfired romance, they still retain their mutual love of mountain climbing. Meanwhile, a man wearing a gas mask drives a tanker into a nearby chemical corporation and unleashes clouds of poison gas. The lethal mist begins to spread all over the city, gradually filling up the streets, killing pedestrians and gawkers alike and slowly rising toward the upper levels of tall buildings.
Exit, written and directed by Lee Sang-geun, is a surprisingly adroit crowd-pleaser, a contemporary Korean variant of a ‘70s-style Hollywood disaster film. Laced with coarse but efficient humor, Exit is tightly constructed as a thrilling obstacle course, with little melodramatic dilly-dallying and, most refreshingly, lacking the eruptions of self-righteous political anger that mar similar-themed blockbusters such as The Terror Live or Tunnel. Even though the terror attack that turns the Korean city of Daegu into a living nightmare is not rendered entirely believable (and the gas’s ultimate “self-cleaning” just a bit irresponsible plot-wise), it is never used by the filmmakers to vent frustration against the government or news media. If anything, they openly advocate common-sense preparedness and rational thinking, such as reading manuals when dealing with the equipment to be used in times of emergency. Imagine that, a disaster movie in which the hero actually saves lives by consulting a manual!
One of the film’s highlights involves Yong-nam’s crazy stunt of bare-handedly scaling the walls of the banquet hall, a sequence that makes exceedingly clever use of the kitschy decor of the building to generate suspense and humor in equal measure. DP Kim Il-yeon (Silenced), lighting supervisor Kim Min-jae (The Front Line), editor Lee Gang-hee (Steel Rain) and production designer Chae Kyung-seon (The Fortress) all help out in keeping the action slick, the gaseous threat suitably menacing and the obstacles faced by the hapless protagonists both ludicrous in scale and gorgeous in their night-sky resplendence. Exit also presents an interesting showcase of drone videography, as Yong-nam and Eui-joo are aided by YouTuber gadflies sending off their drones to capture the “money shots.” As for characterization, I wish both Yong-nam and Eui-joo were conceived as a bit “cooler:” their boisterous and face-crunching responses to every situation that goes south are admittedly funny, but become rather tiresome by the two-thirds point. The young actors nonetheless acquit themselves without a problem: Yoona is certainly very attractive as a lanky beauty whose jaw-dropping physical exertions come off as realistic and in character (all that K-pop dance training came in useful, after all).
Exit, opening July 31 against the anticipated Song Kang-ho star vehicle The King’s Letters and projected summer heavy hitter The Divine Fury, trounced both and raked in 9.4 million tickets. Personally, I wish its rather belabored comedic depiction of the family relations had been toned down (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host or Parasite might have served as a good model), but this minor gripe does not take much away from the fact that Exit is a superbly entertaining concoction, clever and nimble, as well as a promising debut for writer-director Lee Sang-geun.
Lee Sang-geun studied film at Sungkyunkwan University and the Korea National University of Arts. His short films such as Poetry Class (2004), Do You Wanna Baby? (2006), Mr. Self-Portrait (2007), and Mr. Tap’s Holiday (2010) won multiple awards at the Mise-en-Scenes Genre Film Festival. He also served on the production team of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Dachimawa Lee. Ryoo and his wife Kang Hye-jeong would ultimately produce Exit, his highly successful feature debut.
2019 – Exit