Even by Asian standards, few people are more attached to their cell phones than South Koreans — a phenom that’s played for a mixture of humor and thrills in “Handphone.” This second feature by writer-director Kim Han-min suffers from some of the same faults as his over-discursive murder mystery, “Paradise Murdered” (2007), but until its final act, it’s a nicely played black comedy-cum-psychodrama that should connect with fantasy fests and specialty ancillary. February release dialed up an OK 630,000 admissions ($3 million).
Oh Seung-min (Eom Tae-woong) is an oily, emotional talent manager whose wife (Park Sol-mi, “Paradise Murdered”) is ready to divorce him, and who has two weeks to pay some dough back to an unsavory hood (Park Gil-su). Hoping that rising actress Yun Jin-ah (Lee Se-na) will turn his career around, Oh is mortified when her ex-b.f. blackmails him using a sex clip of Yun.
Oh pays the guy off but, in his haste, loses his cell phone, to which the vidclip was initially sent. Worse, the guy who finds it, supermarket employee Jeong I-gyu (Park Yong-woo), starts playing psychological games with him, promising to return the phone but, in the face of Oh’s bullying behavior, progressively leading him on.
Like many recent pics from South Korea, this one would benefit considerably from losing at least 20 minutes, tightening the action and ditching much of the discursiveness that saps the intriguing central idea. When it works — as in the cat-and-mouse games between Oh and Jeong — “Handphone” is gripping. When it doesn’t — as in the increasingly unbelievable third act — the script’s flaws are thrown into sharp relief.
Pic’s faulty decisions include making Oh a character whom auds will hardly empathize with (a talent agent, for God’s sake), and giving Jeong hardly enough psychological ballast to support his sadistic game. Still, as the latter, Park manages to carve out a quietly creepy, anonymous flunky who, faced with keeping his emotions buttoned down at work, has decided to take out his frustrations on a guy who seems to deserve his fate.
Technical package is smooth at all levels.