An engrossing slow-burn mystery about an apparently calm and collected crisis counselor whose past is linked to fanatical religious beliefs and doomsday prophecies, “The Night of the Prophet” reps a fine calling card for South Korean student filmmaker Kim Sung-moo. This intelligently written and well-performed tale could find a theatrical niche locally, where the topic of fringe church groups is of high public interest. World preemed at PiFan, the pic is well worth the attention of festival programmers. Domestic release details are yet to be announced.
“The Night of the Prophet” continues an impressive run of graduate features from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, a prestigious training institution whose alumni credits include 2010’s “End of Animal” and “Bleak Night.” As with those films, Kim’s debut rises above traditional concepts of a student production and can confidently take its place in the general marketplace.
The fascinating central character is Yeo-joo (Lee Mi-so), a hotline operator with deep reserves of patience and understanding for other people’s problems. Considered to be the company’s star employee for her length of service and love of a job with a high turnover rate, the twentysomething is otherwise a closed book, with no family or relationships outside the workplace.
No sooner is she established as an apparently noble and selfless protag than Yeo-joo is seen stealing confidential case files and handing them to Youn-kun (Hong Wan-pyo), a young man whose interest in the documents is related to his father’s death in an auto accident. Things get even murkier when Yeo-joo is kidnapped by Joong-heon (Kim Young-pil), an unhinged middle-aged man claiming to know her from long ago.
At this point, Kim’s screenplay splits into two timelines. In events from 85 hours before the kidnapping, Joong-heon is shown holed up in an isolated cabin with a scrapbook of photographs and drawings related to an end-of-the-world scenario. While these flashbacks create intrigue around the connection between Yeo-joo and Joong-heon, the story temporarily loses momentum with repetitive, present-time ranting from the older man about a promise of salvation that was made to him and never honored.
The narrative gets firmly back on track with the introduction of sequences set back in 1992. The story is at its most gripping and thematically powerful with scenes showing Yeo-joo (Sin Soo-yeon) as a young child occupying an exalted position inside a religious cult. The inner workings of the group in the lead-up to an apocalyptic pact on a mountain near Jeonju, and the lasting impact of those events, bring all the story threads to sharp and satisfying resolutions.
Lee is quietly compelling as the enigmatic Yeo-joo, whose career dispensing sympathy is slowly revealed to stand in stark contrast to life events that have severely dented her capacity for empathy. Supporting players acquit themselves well.
Clocking in at a trim 81 minutes, the film is well produced and nicely photographed by Kim Jae-woo in earthy tones on a modest budget. Production design by Heo Seo-young and Choi Young-mi, and costume design by Kim Hyun-jung, are particularly impressive during the fateful events of 1992. Other tech credits are solid.