An ambitious experiment in narrative cinema largely goes the distance in first-time writer-director Sohn Young-sung’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a Chinese-box-style collection of stories-within-stories that’s thoroughly engaging until it jumps the rails in the final reel. Given that it’s not actually about anything concrete, this South Korean yarn of a group of friends with a tangled history has a playful tone that’s a real asset, equipping pic for fantasy fests as well as some regular sidebars.
Pic introduces thirtysomething pals Sang-tae (Kim Tae-hun) and Seong-ik (Lee Heui-jun) strolling in a forest where there is a famous mass grave, called Geumjeong Pit, dug by the Japanese. En route, they come across a young woman who’s unconscious in a concrete shelter. Cut to Seong-ik telling this story to a three friends in a restaurant, and then back to when the girl comes to and tells her story of how, en route to attempting suicide in front of the b.f. who dumped her, she was attacked by her cab driver, who then drank the poison by mistake.
Plot gets considerably thicker as one of the restaurant friends, Jeong-hun (Lee Hwa-yong), describes how Sang-tae started drinking heavily after being fired from his teaching job. In Jeong-hun’s story, Sang-tae was depressed over being stalked by the school dean’s pretty niece (Kim Jeong-min) — though a flashback within that flashback tells a different story — and also agonizing over his discovery that his grandfather was pro-Japanese during the country’s occupation.
As the group repairs to Sang-ik’s bar to continue chatting, they’re suddenly joined by Eun-yeong (Yeom Ji-yun), Sang-tae’s childhood friend and wannabe g.f., who’s feeling guilty over her offhanded treatment of him. There are also unanswered questions regarding Sang-tae and a friend, Byeong-tae (Park Byeong-eun).
On a single viewing, it’s impossible to say whether the pic ultimately makes any sense. But like Wojciech Jerzy Has’ famous ’60s Russian-doll exercise, “The Saragossa Manuscript,” what’s more important is whether the viewer is pulled into the game. Sohn certainly springs enough surprises and left turns to make “Pit” engaging enough, and is served by a non-name cast that plays it absolutely straight. Only near the end, with the introduction of pure fantasy, does his reach exceed his grasp, and the final scene simply shrugs its shoulders in an unsatisfying way.
Production values are pro, and use of extracts from Schubert works (the Trout Quintet and breezy Ninth Symphony) add some extra style.
For the record, pic has no connection with the Edgar Allan Poe story, though there’s certainly a pendulum-like aspect to the way the real truth swings hither and yon.