Editor’s note: Portions of this review originally ran during this year’s NYAFF, but we’re re-running it here in longer form as the film plays Fantastic Fest.
For many people Korean cinema is synonymous with violent revenge thrillers, but they actually show skill and talent in many more genres. That said, year after year the best serial killer and/or revenge-themed movies tend to come from the wonderfully dark and deliciously twisted minds of South Koreans. But that said, they’re also masters of the jarring tone shift and incapable of saying no when given the opportunity to mix brutality with laughs.
Confession of Murder is the latest Korean export to, at least at first glance, fall into that dark abyss of the sub-genre above, but it’s actually a somewhat different beast. The requisite cop and killer are present, but the film also fills the screen with spectacular stunt work, set pieces that thrill with both insanity and absurdity, and a generous helping of tension-releasing humor.
Lieutenant Choi (Jung Jae-Young) has been on the trail of a serial killer responsible for the deaths of ten women, but as he closes in for the arrest the murderer stabs him, slices his face and escapes into the night. Fifteen years later the statute of limitations on the murders has expired and Lt. Choi is a beaten man, but then the unexpected happens. A man (Park Si-Hoo) claiming to be the killer gives a televised press conference to ask forgiveness from those he wronged and to announce that his new tell-all, detail-filled memoir of the murders hits store shelves the next day. Choi may be faced with a legally untouchable murderer, but the families of the victims feel no such loyalty to the law, and soon everyone is on a collision course to see justice done one way or another.
Writer/director Jeong Byeong-Gil‘s second film is actually his first narrative feature after Action Boys, his documentary on Korean stuntmen, but it unfurls with the confidence of a far more experienced filmmaker. It jumps right to the chase, literally, by opening with a extended foot chase through alleys and restaurant windows and across walls and rooftops, and it is easily one of the most viscerally exciting opening scenes in memory. Jeong’s camera glides beneath cars, leaps out windows and stays with the two runners throughout the five minute scene, and it manages more thrills and suspense than many Hollywood action films do in their entirety.
There are several more such set pieces with a few of them moving beyond the foot chase into vehicular shenanigans, and it’s here where the film ostensibly stumbles. I quantify “stumbles” for a reason as individual mileage may vary, and what strikes one viewer as deliriously bonkers and fun may hit the next as simply ridiculous. To be sure, the car scenes are a mix of close-calls for the stunt teams and unfortunate CGI/green screen work during close ups. They could be enough to sink the film if said film wasn’t so damn energizing, engaging, and exciting throughout.
Like many Korean films the movie doesn’t feel beholden to a singular tone meaning laughs are milked whenever possible from the more lighthearted areas. It works though as it never gets too silly, and the final forty five minutes or so get back into the darkly suspenseful goods with a couple fairly chilling revelations and some fantastic dramatic set pieces including a live TV debate. It maintains a precarious balance with scenes of grief bringing people to their knees side by side with physical comedy.
Beyond the thrills, which are copious and exhilarating, the film also finds time to offer a commentary on the cult of celebrity as the killer’s book becomes a bestseller and he’s mobbed by loving fans. Most of it is played for laughs, frequently at the expense of women, but some of it lands with a sharp bite out of the reality TV too many of us enjoy today.
Confession of Murder’s tale of hard-edged cop vs twisted serial killer doesn’t reach the level of I Saw the Devil or Memories of Murder, but it manages to carve a niche of its own as it melds intense drama, exhilarating action, and honest heart into one hell of a ride.
The Upside: Multiple high-caliber action sequences; wonderfully written and executed plot turns; funny
The Downside: Some unfortunate CGI use; a couple of the vehicle chases may be too ludicrous
On the Side: This is actually a 2012 release, but it has been playing the festival circuit throughout the year.