A coolly lensed, often visually grisly stab at the serial-killer genre, “H” is a pic where many of the pieces are in place apart from the script. Recalling a host of better movies from the U.S. to Japan, and aspiring to the same clammy dread that marked local classic “Tell Me Something” (1999), this curate’s egg of a movie boasts a few impressive moments, but otherwise falls short of its target. Film crashed and burned on Korean release late last December, but could have a modest ancillary career among hardcore Asian psychothriller buffs.
On a rainy night at a Busan garbage dump, a woman’s body is found mutilated, her dead baby torn from her womb. Four days later, another young femme is garroted and eviscerated in a public bus. The cops, led by ace criminal profiler Kim Mi-yeon (Yeom Jeong-ah) and joined by loose-cannon detective Kang (Ji Jin-heui), notice the crimes replicate those of serial killer Shin Hyeon (Jo Seung-woo). The only problem is that Shin is on death row, after handing himself in for the murder of six women 10 months ago.
While Kim & Co. try to work out whether Shin hired or inspired a copycat killer, a suspect (Kim In-gweon) is shot dead by Kang after slicing up a lesbian at a nightclub, again mimicking an earlier murder by Shin. Though they manage to pin the earlier killings on the dead suspect, who was in the same prison as Shin, the cops realize that still leaves three more crimes waiting to be duplicated.
The trail leads to Shin’s uncooperative female shrink, Chu Gyeong-suk (Kim Seon-gyeong), one of whose patients (Min Yung-gi) becomes the next suspect. In pic’s one genuinely scary sequence, Kim and Kang give chase on a night they expect the next murder to take place, but arrive too late. Also, there’s still the mystery of how Shin is involved and why the killings are being done.
The solution, which explains the film’s one-letter moniker, is hardly original and partly recalls a recent Japanese psychothriller; but that wouldn’t have mattered if the screenplay, co-written by debuting helmer Lee Jeong-hyeok, had been more convincingly worked out. Pic suffers from unlikely leaps of police logic and some continuity problems that are out of kilter with the cool, procedural style. Some of these may be explained by rumored last-minute cutting, in which 17 minutes seems to have disappeared from the running time.
Same sense of mimicking but not equaling better pictures also afflicts the paint-by-numbers dialogue, especially when explaining the dodgy psychological background to the murders. Prison scenes, too, between the cops and young Shin strain for a feeling of Lecter-like dread, and aren’t helped by a miscast Jo as the psycho.
On a tech level, pic’s score often works against the atmospheric lensing by veteran Aussie d.p. Peter Gray.
Performances, ranging from Yeom’s icily focused lead cop to Ji’s combustible detective, don’t engage at an emotional level. (Yeom was more effective in her small but crucial role in “Tell Me Something.”) Pic never drags, and is always watchable in a no-brainer way, but could have been far better.