Transcript of my introduction to the teaser screening of Bluebeard for the Korean Film Festival, 10 July, 2017
Lee Soo-yoon’s Bluebeard takes its place amongst a recent spate of Korean serial killer films, including Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2004), Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil (2010).
Nearly fifteen years after the release of her first feature, the K-horror Uninvited (2003), writer/director Lee makes a welcome return with a mystery thriller that is also concerned, precisely, with the return of the past and of the repressed. Lee’s film opens with an audible radio report about the unusually frigid weather, and with the sight of a headless corpse bobbing, unnoticed, by the icy banks of the Han River. The mystery of this woman’s body washed ashore recalls the famous opening to TV’s Twin Peaks, holding out the promise that the vices of a whole community will be gradually exposed. The film’s original Korean title Haebing – which means literally ‘thawing’, like ice – suggests that this case, however cold, may eventually be solved. Meanwhile the rather different English title for the film, Bluebeard, alludes to the famous French folktale about a monstrous serial wife-killer. Lee’s film too will feature several wives going missing, presumed dead, and several dismembered corpses.
A rapid transition from the icy cold of the opening scene to a heatwave indicates that some time has elapsed, and we are introduced to our main character. Byun Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-woong) is a doctor in exile from his past. Forced to take up a staff position in a clinic on the outskirts of Seoul after his own clinic in the more affluent Seoul district of Gangnam underwent financial collapse, Byun is a victim of his own failure. Divorced from his wife (Yoon Se-ah) with only fortnightly access to his young son (Moon Jung-hyun), Byun is trying to rebuild his life, even as the outer suburb where he now lives in a cramped apartment is visibly undergoing its own reconstruction and modernisation.
The clinic where Byun now works specialises in colonoscopies, and as we, with Byun, see graphic internal footage of his elderly patients’ rectums and bowels, we realise that Byun is well-placed to learn this community’s dirty secrets. These include the semi-conscious mutterings of a senile patient (Shin Goo) who, while under anaesthetic, seems to confess to dismembering bodies and disposing of them in the river. Given the area’s past reputation for unsolved serial killings, Byun starts keeping a close eye on the butcher shop downstairs. For this is where the demented, loose-lipped patient lives with his adult son Jung Sung-geun (Kim Dae-myung) and Sung-geun’s dysfunctional family. Byun – who is himself an avid reader of detective novels – suspects a scenario out of Sweeney Todd or the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Meanwhile a mysterious man in a hat (Song Young-chang) seems to be observing Byun’s every move.
With Byun growing ever more convinced that he is a witness to murders in his neighbourhood, his suburban suspicion, paranoia and voyeurism recall a plot pattern familiar from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Brian de Palma’s Body Double (1984), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989) and D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia (2007). Yet even as Bluebeard becomes increasingly obsessed with different types of surveillance – from endoscopies to CCTV to the dash cams in cars – it also plays games with subjective point-of-view and narrative ellipsis, in order to keep the viewer guessing right to the bitter end what has been seen and what has been merely conjured by the mind. In particular, the recurring image of a stuffed black plastic bag becomes like the paper-wrapped box in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1992): it obviously conceals something, and under the circumstances the natural assumption – certainly the assumption made early by Byun – is that it contains a human head. Still, in filling in that dark unknown space in the plastic bag, and in supplementing the narrative of Bluebeard with our own anxiety, expectation and imagination, we too risk losing our heads, and being left without our critical faculties and detective skills in place.
Explaining to his neighbour Sung-geun why he likes detective novels so much, Byun says: “I simply like having answers…. Mystery books have answers in the form of criminals.” Bluebeard also comes with eventual answers, although they arrive via a sequence of well-managed twists that constantly wrong-foot the viewer while always playing fair.
Later this year, the London Korean Film Festival will feature a new strand devoted to Korean film noir. I do hope that this evening’s film, with its play on perspectives and its dark, probing look inside the human animal, will serve as an apt teaser of noir themes.
© Anton Bitel