Gaping plot holes and illogical behavior are to be found in every nook and cranny of “Hide and Seek,” a crudely scripted horror-mystery about ghoulish squatters who infiltrate peoples’ homes. And yet, this slick South Korean production from writer-director Huh Jung so cunningly manipulates our primal fears, and is so superbly shot and paced, that shudders and squeals are sure to spread through the cinema every time a door slides open or slams shut. Pic packed houses during its two-month domestic run, bagging $17.7 million in its first week, and should swiftly occupy Asian genre markets.
On a purely cinematic level, “Hide and Seek” operates on the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t level suggested by the title, goosing the audience by having characters appear and disappear suddenly. But on a deeper psychological level, it taps into fears of having one’s privacy invaded, suggesting a cross between old folk tales about changelings and break-in thrillers like “Pacific Heights” or the recent “The Purge.” It also delivers a stark allegory of the haves vs. the have-nots, and while there’s something unmistakably reactionary about its depiction of poor people as filthy psychos scheming to usurp the lifestyles of the rich, the film will nonetheless resonate in emerging economies like China, with plenty of remake potential.
Returning to her run-down tenement block, Eun-hye is followed into the elevator by a spooky figure in black, unrecognizable behind a huge motorcycle helmet and carrying a metal bar. When Eun-hye enters her apartment, she senses that someone has snuck in while she was at work. This well-plotted prologue oozes Hitchcockian suspense and climaxes with some spine-chilling shocks, while a voiceover recalls the urban legend of “squatters” who reside in people’s homes without ever being found out, suggesting a paranormal dimension.
The phantasmagorical element proves especially powerful in the first act, as Baek Sung-soo (Son Hyun-joo), the mysophobic owner of a chic cafe, spots a homeless man leaving a mucky puddle in the cafe’s washroom; soon he’s having hallucinations of the man raiding the fridge in his spic-and-span condo. These grotesque visions, shot with cold, dank J-horror atmospherics, are linked to news reports about Baek’s missing half-brother, Sung-chul, a black sheep and convicted sex offender.
Baek, his fashionista wife Mi-ji (Chun Mi-sun) and their young kids Ho-seh (Jung Joon-won) and Su-ah (Kim Soo-ahn) go to inspect Sung-chul’s apartment, which turns out to be located inside the tenement block of the prologue. The rumor that the building is swarming with illegal squatters is partly substantiated by an eerie encounter with twitchy housewife Joo-hee (Moon Jung-hee) and her weird moppet, Pyung-hwa (Kim Ji-young).
The second half plays out in straight genre mode as the Baeks battle an anonymous yet omniscient intruder in their residential complex. Although there’s no shortage of cheap shocks, Huh’s tautly orchestrated action sequences manage to turn even the smallest incident — a dash for the elevator, a lock activated in the nick of time — into a heart-stopping jolt. Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum’s impeccably timed editing allows the viewer no time to dwell on plot inconsistencies or the protags’ infuriatingly stupid behavior, such as the fact that they never call security guards or the police until it’s too late.
While tension derives from the uncertainty of whether Sung-chul is a mortal or supernatural presence, the gradual unfolding of the brothers’ unpleasant childhood memories provides a rudimentary backstory for the psychodrama at play. The Big Twist should come as a surprise to most viewers, even though a few clues are planted right at the beginning. Still, the superficial cleverness of the concept doesn’t keep it from being largely improbable, and the final act descends into a psychotic bust-up that not only recalls the messy endings of innumerable B-movies, but at times resembles ludicrous slapstick.
While there’s little subtlety to speak of in the acting, Son and Chun present mordant caricatures of snooty American returnees, while Jung and Kim are believable as obnoxious brats. Part of the film’s unwholesome enjoyment comes from seeing these hoity-toity folks get their designer homes trashed and their lives threatened.
Ace craft contributions are invaluable in papering over the script’s shoddier aspects. Chun Soo-a’s production design draws such a contrast between the grimy, labyrinthine apartment and the luxury condo that viewers may feel as though they’re shuttling between heaven and hell. Kim Il-yeon’s camera snoops around intricately designed interiors, continuously revealing hidden spaces, while lighting plays expertly with creepy silhouettes and glass reflections. The shrill sound mix amplifies even the slightest creak.