Karaoke Crazies (2016)

With a poster from Gone With The Wind over its front door as an emblem of both faded glory and of melodrama to come, Addiction Karaoke is a small-town, dead-end club where people go to lose themselves – and not just the clients. Struggling to make ends meet, and haunted by a personal tragedy, owner and sole occupant Sung-wook (Lee Moon-sik) divides his time between listening to porn on headphones, and making half-hearted suicide attempts. Sung-wook’s hand-written ad for a ‘singing helper’ is answered by Ha-suck (Bae So-eun), a similarly damaged loner who, despite being completely ill-suited for the job (she is a tone-deaf, tracksuit-wearing misanthrope), has soon turned the business around with her willingness to give the customers blowjobs.

They are soon joined by Na-ju (Kim Na-mi), a helper whose professed “specialty is salvaging dead shops”, and whose very different, seductive style of entertaining men comes to complement Ha-suck’s more meretricious approach. It takes a while for these three to realise that there is a fourth (Bang Jun-ho), nicknamed Jeombagi (or ‘Big Mole’), who has likewise fallen through the cracks and is already residing, at first unnoticed, in their midst – and now this quartet, each dogged by a harrowing past, forms a fragile family, even as a serial killer starts to target women working in the entertainment industry…

An orchestral score, dominated by the nostalgic notes of the accordion, sets the tone of melancholic whimsy here: Karaoke Crazies may be about broken, nocturnal folk (“like vampires”) who shrink from the outside world and other people, but it is also, make no mistake, an eccentric comedy of lovable misifts. The film’s hyperreal stylisations and dusty sets, reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s oeuvre, wrench humour even from misery, alienation and self-torment, while a strong seam of sentiment offsets all the human despair. In keeping with their establishment’s name, all these characters are addicts, caught in a cycle of porn, video games, or money-making as a means of avoiding any real relationships – yet there is a strange complementarity to their different problems, so that they end up not only accommodating each other, but also learning to overcome their deep-seated han and to live again, together.

There is something undeniably contrived about the way in which the villain’s history, modus operandi and even his chosen vehicle all neatly dovetail into the other characters’ personal traumas, allowing them to find redemption in their confrontation with him – but such contrivance is not really an issue in a film as droll and capricious as this. Director Kim Sang-chan (Highway Star) offers, in Sung-wook, an alternative kind of male hero to the violent abusers of women so often seen in Korean films (including this one) – and deftly navigates the many shifts in tone, mood and genre without ever seeming to make a song and dance about it.

© Anton Bitel