×

BiFan Film Review: ‘The 12th Suspect’

Post-Korean War Seoul is the setting for a claustrophobic, politically charged murder mystery.

Director:
Ko Myoung-sung
With:
Kim Sang-kyung, Park Sun-young, Kim Dong-young

1 hour 42 minutes

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

Popular on Variety

BiFan Film Review: ‘The 12th Suspect’

Reviewed online in Adelaide, Australia, July 7, 2019. (In BiFan Film Festival — closer.) Running Time: 102 MIN. Original title: “Namsan siin sarinsageon”

Production: (South Korea) An Indiestory release of a Filmcompany Jin, Spackman Media Group presentation of a Jin Pictures, M & CF, Miin Pictures production, in association with Kook Entertainment, supported by Korean Film Council, Gyeonggi Content Agency Production Investment. (International sales: Indiestory, Seoul.) Producer: Yun Min-young. Executive producers: An Young-jin, Jeung Shin-young. Co-producer: Cho Eun-sung. Co–executive producer: Kook Se-hwan

Crew: Director, writer: Ko Myoung-sung. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen): Park Jong-chol. Editor: Kim Soo-beom. Music: Koo Ja-wan.

With: Kim Sang-kyung, Park Sun-young, Kim Dong-youngHan Ji-an, Kim Ji-hun, Heo Song-tae, Kim Hui-sang, Jeong Ji-sun, Dong Bang-yu, Nam Seong-jin, Jang Won-yeong, Nam Yeon-yu, Na Do-yul

Music By: Koo Ja-wan

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content