Artists, agitators and intellectuals are put through the ringer in “The 12th Suspect,” a crisply executed mystery-thriller about a military detective investigating the murder of a civilian in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. Set almost exclusively in a Seoul teahouse where the bohemian atmosphere is violently disrupted by the bloodhound’s ever-widening line of questioning, this very well performed chamber piece is expertly controlled by writer-director Ko Myoung-sung. A gripping whodunit with acidic commentary on dark forces at play during the formation of modern South Korea, “Suspect” has the quality to attract upscale viewers when released in local cinemas later this year, following its world premiere as closing night attraction at BiFan. Ko’s easily accessible drama is well worth the attention of festival programmers.
Much like the methodology of its protagonist, “The 12th Suspect” lulls viewers into a sense of calm and order before going for the jugular. As we enter the shabby Oriental Teahouse in Seoul’s Myeong-dong district, all the talk is about noble sacrifices made by artists and “finding bliss in a cup of coffee.” For 12 well-spent minutes, the camera glides around the establishment while text identifies everyone by name and occupation.
Conversation turns from existentialism to murder when boozy painter Woo Byeong-hong (Jeong Ji-sun) arrives with news that the body of poet and teahouse regular Baek Doo-hwan (Nam Seong-jin) has been found at Mount Namsan, a popular peak in central Seoul. According to Woo, the dead man was a loser and not worth lamenting. Woo’s sentiments are echoed by Oh Hang-chul (Kim Ji-hun), a beefy poet who dismisses Baek as aloof and a bad writer.
Using body language, sideways glances and nervous eye contact between all eight patrons and the cafe’s married proprietors, Madam (Park Sun-young) and Noh Suk-hyon (Heo Song-tae), Ko’s careful direction establishes a strong air of tension and intrigue. Lightening the tone, albeit temporarily, is the arrival of Master Sgt. Kim Ki-chae (Kim Sang-kyung), an officer in the South Korean army’s Special Operations Unit.
Kim Sang-kyung, who made his name as the methodical city cop in Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder,” is utterly compelling as the immaculately groomed investigator who initially seems like the most polite official you could ever meet. In dulcet tones, he assures everyone, including old professor Shin Yoon-chi (Dong Bang-yu) and moody painters Lee Ki-seob (Kim Hui-sang) and Park In-seong (Kim Dong-young), he’s here to ensure public safety in these dangerous post-war days. That’s until he bolts the doors shut and two heavily armed soldiers show up to assist with inquiries.
Kim’s intense grilling of suspects is neatly combined with multiple perspective — “Rashomon”-style flashbacks that cast plenty of mystery around Baek’s checkered past and events leading to his death. The plot becomes even more engrossing on news that Baek did not die alone. Also killed at Mount Namsan was his rumored lover, Choi Yoo-jung (Han Ji-an), a free-thinking young woman with the rare distinction in those days of having attained a university degree in Paris.
Ko’s screenplay ramps up nicely when Kim shows his hand and the teahouse becomes a sealed-off interrogation center. The reason he’s handling what ought to be a regular police matter is to flush out subversives, communists and anyone else perceived to be a security threat or believed guilty of what Kim considers treason during the North’s occupation of Seoul during the war. Kim’s hatred of “degenerate” artists and intellectuals and his opinions on what’s required to maintain an ordered society can easily be read as a scathing critique of the many political and social upheavals in South Korea since 1953.
Aside from the striking red dress worn by Madam, there’s barely a primary color in sight. Almost every character wears combinations of brown, beige and white, making them blend into the drab décor of the Oriental Teahouse until picked out for questioning by Kim. The mood of mounting fear is accentuated by Park Jong-chol’s smooth widescreen photography, which begins with flat, almost featureless lighting patterns and subtly shifts to more sculptured, film noir-ish settings as participants begin to understand the trouble they’re in. All other technical work is spot-on