A slow-burning love story, pitched halfway between psychodrama and the supernatural, “Secret Tears” initially holds the imagination but slowly loses its grip as time passes. In his sophomore outing after the “Carrie”-like “Whispering Corridors,” writer-director Park Ki-hyeong finesses his material to an extreme degree, stretching viewers’ good will almost to breaking point and finally not rewarding their patience. Park’s rep, and the high craftsmanship on display, will ensure some festival bookings — film has already been invited to compete at Rotterdam — but this looks unlikely to clock up as many international miles as his first movie.
Previously known as “The Secret” (Korean title’s literal meaning), picture was a spectacular failure on local release in June, reaching only 40,000 admissions in Seoul. (“Corridors,” by contrast, was one of the top-grossing Korean movies of ’98.) It’s a much better film than its B.O. suggests, but Park has badly miscalculated his own pulling power, especially in a market that has since been drenched in atmospheric psycho-thrillers.
Opening is impressive, cross-cutting between a tearful teenage girl (Yun Mi-jo) running through the night and a group of work friends, led by insurance worker Ku-ho (Kim Seung-woo), celebrating in a restaurant. As the friends drive home in a heavy storm, their car hits the girl, standing in the middle of a highway. For a moment, time is suspended as her body hangs in the rain-lashed air, then it crashes down on to the tarmac.
In a panic, the trio take the body back to Ku-ho’s apartment, where they find she’s still alive and with not a mark on her. From her clothes, Ku-ho discovers her name is Mi-jo; next morning she’s already up and dressed, though she seems to be suffering from amnesia and lack of speech.
Ku-ho’s two workmates, Hyeon-nam (Jeong Hyeon-woo) and his mistress, Do-kyung (Park Eun-suk), are still troubled by the affair, especially as Mi-jo is a minor and she’s staying in Ku-ho’s apartment. Ku-ho himself starts to feel a growing sense of displacement as the mysterious, blank-faced girl with big black sorrowful eyes starts to fascinate him. He’s still in emotional denial after being dumped by his wife, the love of his life.
Slowly giving the viewer tiny bits of information, the film proceeds at a deliberate but fascinating pace, and half an hour in starts to move to another level. When the three friends take Mi-jo on an outing to a funfair, she suddenly goes missing — and Ku-ho finds her literally by tuning his mind into hers.
Bound by some kind of telepathic link, he starts investigating Mi-jo’s background and finds her parents died in a fire just after she’d left home with a female friend. As Ku-ho’s bond turns into love, deadly involuntary forces are unleashed within Mi-jo, and Ku-ho sets out to track down her friend to solve the puzzle and prevent more deaths.
Underneath its arty dressing of immaculate lensing, evocative use of colors (reds, purples, blacks and whites) and sequences bereft of dialogue, “Secret Tears” is a simple tale of psychological possession. Pic demands a certain leap of faith by the viewer in its atmospheric first half, but director Park fails to repay that in the latter stages by ratcheting up either the tempo or drama. Pic’s pacing hardly changes, and by the third act most auds will feel either restless or cheated.
Yun, while well cast for her looks, is required to do little more than stand there and look unworldly, as a vessel for powers beyond her comprehension. Other actors, especially Kim as the doleful Ku-ho, are largely constrained by Park’s rigorous direction. Technically, film is top drawer, with some memorable visual effects featuring water.