How many twists can a plot undergo before it snaps? This, more than any of the many political, moral and personal conundrums that snake through “Idol,” seems to be the question writer-director Lee Su-jin is most interested in posing with his extravagantly incomprehensible sophomore feature. A seedy political thriller by way of grisly revenge movie by way of depraved psychological murder mystery, “Idol” mainly functions to give the increasingly exhausted viewer a greater appreciation for the work of Lee’s more internationally well-known peers in Korean genre cinema. Seemingly an attempt at the kind of stylishly nasty, unpredictable, category-defying thrill ride that Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho can make look dazzlingly easy by comparison with their tonal high-wire acts, this fallen “Idol” takes an early tumble and spends the rest of an unnecessary 144 minutes getting hopelessly tangled in the safety net.
The film does boast an arresting opening narration, however. In husky, grave voiceover, a father describes masturbating his developmentally challenged adult son on a regular basis. The father, whom we don’t see until later, is Joong-sik (Sul Kyung-gu) bottle-blond and crazy-eyed; the son, Bu-nam, is dead before the film begins, killed in a late-night roadside accident perpetrated by the teenage son of rising-star politician and upstanding citizen Myung-hui (Han Seok-kyu). Apparently not understanding that the principle of a hit-and-run is to flee the scene of the crime, the boy has brought Bu-nam’s battered corpse home for his parents to deal with. Teenagers, eh?
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That we’re hearing Joong-sik’s revelations about the intimate nature of his time with his son while watching Myung-hui, his wife and their shellshocked kid stumble around in a bloodied garage before we know who any of these people are let alone how they are connected, should indicate how confusing “Idol” is from the start. And it only gets more murkily complicated from there. Bu-nam, it turns out, was not alone the night he was killed; he was out with Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee) his Chinese immigrant fiancée, who then fled the scene. A raving, grieving Joong-sik is certain there’s something amiss about the official account of his beloved son’s death, which has been cobbled together full of mysterious holes despite Myung-hui, who is in the middle of a difficult political campaign, forcing his son to confess to the crime.
Both fathers want desperately to find Ryeon-hwa, and so their paths are set to collide. This much is easy enough to piece together, though communicated with such unnecessarily convoluted storytelling that even though only a few minutes have passed, you feel you deserve a gold star and a quick smoke break for getting this far. No such mercy is forthcoming however, as Lee’s corkscrew script instead embarks on its first shift in focus, and whatever hold you thought you had on these inexplicable characters goes out the rain-and-blood-splashed window. Suddenly the previously hyper-honorable Myung-hui is torturing young women and backing his car over people (like son, like father). And the antic, outlandish Joong-sik becomes the film’s “hero.” Then, in the third act, Ryeon-hwa takes over as the protagonist, which at least means that actress Chun Woo-hee, so great in the far superior “The Wailing,” gets to have some grisly fun impassively exacting revenge on those who wronged her. A lot of people are killed — though slightly fewer than seems justified for the number of characters, main and peripheral, who are suggested to be murderers.
Insert yourself into “Idol” at any given moment and it will look a lot like it should, a twisty thriller with flourishes of the gory grotesque for which Korean cinema is well known — graphic decapitations and peculiar bloodletting a great deal more baroque and intricate than strictly necessary to get the job done. Cinematographer Son Won-ho sticks with a time-honored gritty, steely-gray palette, and production designers Kim Si-yong and Jeong Eye-wun keep the omnipresent downpour downpouring. Indeed, in isolation, any one of its myriad strands might work fine. But cut together and laid out side by side, they make no sense whatsoever, with characters displaying such bizarre, unexplained changes of heart, motivation and psychology from one scene to the next that one wonders if the screenplay was distributed in loose-leaf format on a windy day. Korean New Wave diehards might find enough in the locally well-known cast’s committed performances, and the atmosphere of slick depravity, to power them around the plot’s hairpin switchbacks. Everyone else should be aware that this many U-turns and stall-outs amount to a very false “Idol” indeed.