East Meets West
I don’t know a great deal about Korean cinema, but I imagine that H must have been a milestone in the Korean film industry – a distinctly Korean interpretation of a Western tradition. H is a dark psychological murder mystery, thriller, and suspense film, best compared to The Silence of the Lambs, or Kiss the Girls – not what one expects from the other side of the Pacific. There’s no martial arts to be found, and no running through trees, and pseudo-mystical mum…o-jumbo is just as Western as Se7en. Never once does a sword fight break out, and no wise, old monastic sages are ever consulted.
Instead, what you get is a dose of office politics, big city traffic, the Korean obsession with cell-phones, and of course, the grisly products of serial killers. H follows (mainly) Detectives Kang and Kim who are on the case of a copycat serial killer. Conveniently the original killer is in custody and available for interview. Unfortunately, Kim’s former partner and fiancé – Han – killed himself after spending too much time on the original serial killing case, leading to all manner of emotional tension and confrontation. H does a good job of making sure that there’s a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and does a good job at create engaging psyches for characters that become central to the story.
Warning: There’s some pretty gruesome, disturbing imagery in this movie, particularly if you have children. So be warned: This movie is about a serial killer that often targets pregnant women.
In the end, the movie suffers from overly self-conscious direction and editing: decent pacing is sacrificed for the sake of creating a relentlessly somber mood. On the other hand, this may be a purely cultural disconnect; perhaps the film’s pacing makes more sense to Korean audiences.
I’d also allude to what I consider to be a pretty goofy (and predictable) last minute plot twist here, but that would involve spoilers, which I’ll keep out of this review. Suffice it to say that final twist and pacing issues aside, H makes for as involving a cinematic experience as traditional film that you might consider. Ironically, this is one of disappointing aspects of the movie – really, it could be in any language or location; aside from Hyundai’s and Kia’s, there isn’t really a lot of Korea in the movie.
But enough rambling already. Let’s bring the pain and start discussing…
The video is generally awful. Grainy, and washed out. Poor contrast, poor colour saturation. Colour bleeds in fast-paced action. If you’re looking for striking jet-black Korean hair colours and facial contrast, forget. All of the actor’s hair is the same dirty grey as all of the other black areas on screen. For that matter, much of the movie is dirty grey – city, cars, people – blah. Artistic license takes it to a point, but poor source and transfer really make it awful. Still watchable, but frustrating given the good quality of the movie.
Dovetailing nicely with the lousy video is an entirely lame series of audio options. I dare you to find the difference between DTS, 5.1, and 2.0. All come across as more or less mono. I thought this might be one of those weird cases where 2.0 would be better than 5.1 as it might have had less processing and deviation from the original master, but that was not the case here – all audio tracks are equally uninspiring. The only exception is the soundtrack, which roars in periodically from who knows where with much more depth that whatever’s happening on screen. The sound track is still centered dead ahead and pretty undynamic and flat, but it does provide some reprieve from the dead-in-the-water dialog and sound effects.
Now – this might sound like a pretty bad review of the audio, but unlike the video, the flat audio tracks didn’t actually detract from the movie. Dialog still comes through fine, and you can certainly here whatever’s happening on screen – its just not a particularly enveloping experience.
Behind the Scenes: Here a stack of Behind the Scenes footage in its purest form. This is an unorganized, and undifferentiated series of video clips of different stages of production – the actors learning how to rappel (which didn’t happen in the movie – odd), shoot guns, and so on, followed by footage from strange promotional events (mock terrorist attacks?), and actual production footage. Without any context or commentary, its significance is all pretty much lost – but there’s a lot of it for people that are really into the movie.
Stills Gallery: Yup, its another gallery of too-small still photographs from scenes in the movie. I never have figured out what this feature is supposed to convey, in this movie, or any other.
Alternate Opening: This is a different opening credits chapter, which actually plays a lot like Gingersnaps. Prescient scenes of violence and mayhem are intermingled with the credits in a montage running several minutes.
Tartan Asian Extreme Previews: A lengthy list of trailers for forthcoming Tartan Releases. Take a look at A Tale of Two Sisters for a really creepy-looking film that seems to have a lot of good things in common with The Grudge. If you want to be confused by incomprehensible Asian cinema, check out Heroic Duo or Koma. “Only I can take your kidney!” Okay then.
If you like dark, noire murder-mystery movies, this one is worth watching. Watching with subtitles overtop of Korean audio definitely adds some novelty to the experience. The lousy audio and video definitely take away from the experience, but not enough take this one off your shopping list.
Special Features List
- Alternate Opening
- Behind the Scenes Footage
- Photo Gallery
- New Releases from Tartan