Four lost souls bring a struggling karaoke club back to life in “Karaoke Crazies,” an entertaining combination of eccentric comedy and involving human drama. Boasting tip-top visuals and outstanding performances, the film only hits bum notes in a small number of scenes showing needlessly nasty violence against women. Though a little too offbeat to attract a large mainstream audience, “Karaoke Crazies” should still carve out a solid commercial niche in South Korea, where karaoke enjoys massive popularity across all age and social groups. After launching at SXSW (where the pastime also thrives among hipsters), the movie appears set for a long festival run and could snare limited theatrical exposure in regional markets.

Off the radar since co-directing 2007’s music-themed comedy “Highway Star,” Kim Sang-chan never overindulges in the kitsch aspects of karaoke, though there’s certainly plenty of fun here with weirdo customers drifting in and out of the premises. The firm focus of Kim’s direction and Park Ji-hong’s screenplay is connecting viewers emotionally with fascinating characters whose troubled lives start to improve in an environment that’s purpose-built for ordinary people to sing their hearts out, however badly, and shake the stress of daily life.

Apart from a few brief exteriors, the whole show takes place in the underground rooms of Addiction Karaoke, a small-town establishment in dire financial straits since a nearby factory closed down. That hardly seems to bother owner Sung-wook (Lee Moon-sik), a middle-aged porn addict (he only likes the sound, not the pictures), who, in a funny running gag, is constantly on the brink of committing suicide but is either too lazy or easily distracted to go through with it. In a perfunctory bid to stave off enforced closure, Sung-wook advertises for female “help staff” to assist customers and encourage them to spend as much as possible.

Answering the call is Ha-suck (Bae So-eun), an expressionless young thing who looks like she’s wandered in from a ghost movie. A video-game addict who shuffles around in a drab tracksuit, Ha-suck proves to be the worst possible employee. In any normal world, she’d be sacked immediately, but it makes perfect sense here for Sung-wook to simply shrug his shoulders and politely ask if she wouldn’t mind making a bit more effort. For reasons that become poignantly clear much later on, Ha-suck responds by transforming into a sexy vision in white and starts offering “extra services” to customers.

Unaware of precisely why business has suddenly picked up, Sung-wook figures he may as well hire another assistant. Breezing through the door and instantly becoming the life of this movie is Na-joo (Kim Na-mi), a vivacious 29-year-old whose specialty is rescuing troubled karaoke parlors from apparent doom. Kim is dynamite as the no-nonsense chatterbox who wrangles customers with supreme skill and enthusiastically assumes the role of den mother. Rounding out the venue’s oddball pseudo-family is Jeombagi (Bang Jun-ho), a traumatized middle-aged deaf-mute who’s been living unnoticed thus far in a storeroom.

For its first two-thirds, the film strikes a winning balance between wacky comedy and revelations about dark and sometimes disturbing aspects of the characters’ lives. Things run off the rails slightly toward the end with the appearance of a serial killer and brief scenes in which women are viciously beaten. These small but jolting moments are way out of kilter with an otherwise engaging and appealing tale.

Jin Kyung-hee’s eye-catching production design and DP Jang U-young’s expertly arranged lighting combine wonderfully well to evoke the deep despair and sunny optimism existing side-by-side in Addiction Karaoke’s subterranean maze. Lee Hyo-jeong’s terrific score includes everything from delicate mood pieces to zippy arrangements reminiscent of an early 1960s Hollywood bedroom farce.

Film Review: ‘Karaoke Crazies’

Reviewed at BiFan Film Festival (Korean Fantastic), July 22, 2016. (Also in SXSW, Fantasia, Boston Underground, BAIFICI Buenos Aires, Edinburgh film festivals.) Running time: <strong>106 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Joongdok noraebang”)

  • Production: (South Korea) An Aram Pictures production, in association with Redhill Pictures. (International sales: 9ers Entertainment, Seoul.) Producer: Hwang Phil-seon. Executive producer: Hwang Phil-seon. Co-producer: Kim Hong-sick. Co-executive producer: Kim Hong-sick.
  • Crew: Director: Kim Sang-chan. Screenplay: Park Ji-hong. Camera (color, HD): Jang U-young. Editor: Moon In-dae.
  • With: Lee Moon-sik, Bae So-eun, Kim Na-mi, Bang Jun-ho, Jung Seung-gil. (Korean dialogue)