A crackerjack serial-killer chiller in “Seven” mold, “Tell Me Something” cleverly disguises its thoroughly generic content and leaps of logic with highly honed technique and an involving approach to narrative. Likely to be overlooked by artier fests, but certain to be embraced by broader-minded events, this striking second feature by Chang Yoon-hyun could have some niche theatrical life in the West in the hands of the right distribs.
Following the success of Chang’s debut movie, Internet romancer “The Contact” (top local grosser of 1997), “Something” opened in South Korea in November after an unprecedentedly long marketing buildup that raised expectations to fever pitch. (Part of the campaign’s novelty was impressing the title, which is English rendered in Korean script, in the public’s mind.) Response by crix was mixed, but auds gave it the thumbs-up, for a nationwide tally of 1.6 million admissions (about on a par with “Star Wars: Episode I”), making it the third-largest local grosser of 1999, behind sleeper “Attack the Gas Station!” and mega-hit “Shiri.”
Although marketed as a “hardgore thriller,” it’s more a creepy psychological drama with highly visceral moments. Title sequence sets the tone with credits over scenes of a young man arriving at an apartment and ending up unconscious on an autopsy table, where an unseen killer slowly dismembers his body with a scalpel.
Said victim is just one of several cadavers that turn up in black plastic bags all over Seoul during a hot, rain-drenched summer. Detective Jo (Han Seok-kyu, from “The Contact”), a burned-out cop in need of a break after an investigation by Internal Affairs, is told to set up a special unit, and the first lead throws suspicion on museum restorer Chae Su-yeon (current femme idol Shim Eun-ha), who knew all three victims.
The killings are ultra-macabre, with the limbs of one victim turning up on another, and appear to have been done by someone with a basic knowledge of surgery. Chae, however, is impassive and withdrawn, and the cops’ attention soon turns to Kim Ki-yeon (Yu Jun-sang), an obsessive admirer of Chae who could fit the bill.
That avenue also turns out to be a dead end when Jo later stumbles on a video of Kim’s limbs being amputated — and bits of his body subsequently turn up in a black bag on a freeway. Jo and colleague Oh (Jang Hang-seon) turn their attention back to Chae, who, it appears, was sexually abused by her father when a young girl and who lost her only friend, a young boy who lived nearby, in a fire. As Chae divulges more about her past, and the killing continues, things get nastier indeed.
Helmer Chang already showed considerable skill at manipulating atmosphere and mystery in “The Contact,” but here he’s in overdrive. Dialogue throughout is extremely economical, forcing the viewer to concentrate on the visuals to piece together the complex plot. Effectively, Chang makes the audience part of the investigation team, with the camera roaming over evidence as Jo himself comes across it; pic has none of the usual story-so-far recap scenes in which characters sit around assessing the case to refresh auds’ memories.
As such, it’s an extraordinarily dense movie that requires repeated viewings to fully understand. When the viewer is finally let in on the identity of the murderer (before Jo), only then does the pic become a more routine thriller, with a climax in a record store that’s somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the film. Original tone revives, however, in a leisurely coda with a final twist that repositions the story’s goal posts.
Premise is totally hokey (though no more than that of, say, “Basic Instinct” or “Seven”), but Chang keeps the viewer’s disbelief suspended thanks to the script’s complexity and his highly cinematic management of atmosphere. Partly through the unforced play of light and shadow, partly through the low-key acting, there’s a sense of horrific foreboding and imminent danger that is expertly maintained.
Popular male idol Han is fine as the taciturn detective, with a more flavorsome sidekick in Jang’s peanut-chewing Oh. Shim’s cool beauty is more effective in the first half, where she’s called upon to be simply remote and mysterious. As a friend of Chae’s, Yeom Jeong-ah makes a considerable impression with minimal screen time.
Technically, pic is precision-tooled in all departments.