An original attempt to rewrite some of the cliches of police procedurals and serial-killer pics, “Bystanders” only half succeeds, but makes for interesting watching most of the way. Sophomore outing by South Korean helmer Im Kyung-soo takes a leisurely approach to the subject-matter — slayings of students at a high school — that goes for character and meller elements over explicit tension or action. Only a mild success on release last December, this reps a tough sale overseas, though noir and Asian-themed fests may give it connoisseur space.
Pretitle sequence, with a kid stabbed on a pedestrian overpass one dark and rainy night, is textbook stuff; so, initially, are the two main characters, tomboyish cop Ja-yeong (Shin Eun-gyeong, from “My Wife Is a Gangster”) and her cheeky, athletic sidekick, Dong-wook (singer-TV drama pinup Eric Moon). Very soon, however, Im starts bending the rules: even Ja-yeong and Dong-wook hardly develop the edgy, mismatched chemistry hinted at in their opening, lightly comic scenes.
Complex plot, made harder to follow by interwoven, unannounced flashbacks, starts with a conundrum. A teenage “suicide” is found to have a note inside his stomach confessing to the earlier (pretitles) killing. When the stomach of that earlier cadaver is examined, it’s found to have a note confessing to the second boy’s murder, which took place two days after the first boy died.
The only solution: a third party killed both boys. But when the handwriting on the notes is traced, the supposed perp, fellow pupil Jin-mo (Kim Jin-ho), is found to have died in a hit-and-run accident a month earlier.
Less than halfway through, script pulls a major twist by revealing the identity of the killer, who then promptly vanishes. As the cops try to prevent more murders, the killer plays cat-and-mouse with them.
What makes the pic so different is its soft-pedaling of the usual cinematic mechanisms of serial-killer movies, from action sequences to grisly detail. Plot slowly fans out to touch on Ja-young’s own past.
The high-stakes gamble doesn’t always work: pic could easily be tightened by a reel, and the early horsing around between Ja-yeong and Dong-wook relies too much on Shin’s facial gymnastics from the two “Gangster” movies. Also, it’s only in the film’s coda that the real motivation of the killer (Kim Yun-jin, from “Sheri” and U.S. TV series “Lost”) is revealed, justifying the extreme slaughter only in retrospect.
No stranger to tomboyish roles, Shin — here sans makeup and with tousled, unwashed hair –delivers character, especially in scenes with the young Maeng Se-chang, who plays the nephew Ja-yeong took in when her sister died. Chemistry between Shin and Moon is not completely natural.
Tech package, from the classically composed lensing to Taro Iwasiro’s cool blues score, is fine. One more rewrite and “Bystanders” could have been a substantial, rather than semi-successful, genre-bender.
Korean title means “June Diary,” referring to a private notebook that serves as a clue.