The Witness (Mok-gyeok-ja) (2018)

This is the text of my introduction to The Witness for the London Korean Film Festival on the 6th November

The special focus of this year’s London Korean Film Festival is A Slice of Everyday Life. Now you might expect a straight-up genre film to be the last place for ordinary life to get a look in – but Cho Kyu-jang’s feature debut The Witness takes an utterly ordinary man, and places him in the centre of a larger-than-life scenario.

There is a pattern that can be discerned in many Korean films about serial killers. A ruthless, sadistic murderer is pitted against an extremely aggressive policeman who goes after him like a bull in a china shop. Both are hunters who relentlessly circle their prey, both leave a messy trail of collateral damage behond them – and while the killer is morally beyond the pale and never a figure of audience identification or sympathy, the viewer may also struggle to identify with the film’s supposed hero, who similarly embodies some of the very worst aspects of toxic masculinity. 

We have seen this pattern, or minor variations on it, in, e.g., Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy (2002), Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) and Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil (2010). The Witness, however, is different. Even if it features a conventional serial killer, complete with standard issue baseball cap, rain coat and hammer, his opponent is no monstrous superhuman like in those other films, but rather an ordinary middle-aged lawyer, armed only with a wife, a young daughter and a mortgage. Drunk late one night in his newly bought apartment, Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min) has the misfortune of witnessing a murder in the street below, and then finds himself, along with other witnesses, on the killer’s to-do list. “This is too much for people like me,” Sang-hoon complains at one point, openly acknowledging that the kind of person he represents is completely out of his depth in the serial killer thriller genre.

Don’t look now

In spite, or perhaps because, of his ordinariness, Sang-hoon also makes for a rather uncomfortable figure of identification for the viewer. Like us, he is chiefly characterised, right from the very title of the film, by the act of viewing – but his craven refusal to do anything about what he sees makes his every action, or inaction, ethically dubious. “I thought it’d pass if I closed my eyes,” he says, no doubt mirroring what the more timid or squeamish members of the audience are thinking. Yet Sang-hoon’s ostrich-like attitude has horrific consequences. So while there is plenty of super-taut cat-and-mouse business to be savoured here, and a veritable flood of action at the end, The Witness is also a plea for social responsibility, and a critique of the insular, inward-looking selfishness among Korea’s aspirant middle classes. 

© Anton Bitel