A tightly constructed slow-burn thriller about a 28-year-old man haunted by his participation in a gang rape 10 years earlier, “Fatal” marks an outstanding feature debut by South Korean scripter-helmer Lee Donku. With knockout perfs by first-timers Nam Yeon-woo and Yang Jo-a as perpetrator and victim, respectively, this uncompromising effort is gripping from the get-go and never lets up. World-preemed in competition at Busan, and still without local distribution, the pic will need critical kudos and strong word of mouth to make commercial inroads. A lengthy fest life looks assured, and sales to niche tube outlets are possible.
Lee’s first concern is to show the pernicious power of bullying. In what initially appears to be a straightforward scene showing naughty high-school buddies smoking in a room on campus, timid boy Sung-gong (Nam) is goaded by domineering Sae-woon (Kang Gi-doong) and compliant sidekicks Kyung-sang (Hong Jung-ho) and Hyung-woo (Kim Hee-sung). After a couple of minutes have elapsed, the horrifying truth is revealed: In an adjoining room, a drugged and unconscious teenage girl is being raped in turn by the boys.
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Stricken by conscience, Sung-gong refuses to take part, but is thrown into the room and told to do what’s expected of him, or else. Whether Sung-gong actually performs the act is never made clear; nor does it need to be. The message here, and in all that follows, is that by his mute presence alone, Sung-gong is guilty of a despicable crime.
As the action jumps ahead 10 years, it’s apparent that Sung-gong has been living with a crushing burden of guilt ever since that day. Employed in a nothing job at small garment factory in Seoul, he remains painfully awkward and still willing to be humiliated by Kyung-sang, so corrosive is his craving for acceptance.
Driven by a combination of curiosity and desperation, Sung-gong wanders into a local church and meets a group of young believers whose happiness slowly but surely proves intoxicating. At a meet-and-greet session, he is introduced to Park Jang-mi (Yang), a sweet girl who happens to be the victim of his crime all those years ago.
What happens next is utterly compelling, as Sung-gong wrestles with the burning need to confess to Jang-mi and his growing concern that by doing so he might lose the most kind-hearted girl he could ever hope to meet. Striking a fine balance between romantic drama and psychological thriller, Lee’s precision-tooled screenplay gives auds the space to accept Sung-gong’s present without ever having to forgive him for the past.
This delicate balancing act comes to an unforgettable head at a beachside holiday retreat organized by effervescent church-youth-group leader Min-woo (Son Sang-gyu). The achingly sad scene that ensues distills the awful truth about the permanent scars borne by young sex-crime victims.
The film’s use of religious symbolism is a tad clunky in spots, but the questions it raises about remorse and responsibility — and their answers — won’t easily be forgotten.
Excellent thesping by a main cast consisting exclusively of newcomers plays a major role in the film’s success. Required to venture into the darkest of emotional territory, lead performers Nam and Yang rise to the occasion superbly. Direction-wise, Lee makes nary a misstep in guiding his cast, maintaining a tone that is intense and suspenseful without ever nudging toward melodrama.
The pic is well presented on a miniscule budget. Highlights of a thoroughly pro tech package are the moody photography and a sparingly applied score that makes a strong impact when brought to the fore. Korean-language title translates as “thorny flower.”