This review of Midnight is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
Fantastic thrillers and suspense films come from all over, but if pressed to highlight a single country’s genre output you’d be a fool to dismiss South Korea. Few nations have a film industry so adept at producing one thrilling banger after the next, and happily not even a worldwide pandemic could stem the tide of unrelenting good times. The latest example sports a fairly nonspecific title, but Midnight still delivers the goods when it comes to a nasty villain, a hero worth rooting for, and nerve-shredding suspense.
Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) and her mother (Kil Hae-yeon) share more than a few things in common. They work hard, are looking forward to an upcoming vacation trip, and are both hearing-impaired. They’ve also become the target of a sadistic serial killer named Do-shik (Wi Ha-joon) who sets his knife blade on them even as he works to dispatch another woman. While he presumes the pair to be easy targets, though, he’s in for a rude awakening — these women aren’t here for his bullshit.
Writer/director Kwon Oh-seung makes his feature debut with Midnight and delivers a tense and cruel ride designed to leave viewers amped up, angry, and on edge. Events unfold over a single night from the initial attack through the final confrontation, and it’s rarely less than impressive how capably the film keeps things moving. Kyung-mi does everything right, but the killer’s efforts combined with a society unprepared (or unwilling) to understand her situation leaves the proverbial knife twisting inward until the last few minutes.
After stumbling into Do-shik’s latest act of violence, Kyung-mi moves immediately to a police call box complete with bright lights, cameras, and speakers, but she can’t hear the cops’ replies or questions. She makes her way to the nearest police station, but they don’t understand sign language. Passersby are impatient with what they see as flustered hand motions. It’s a risky throughline for Midnight to take as it’s unavoidably frustrating to watch unfold, but viewers will remain in Kyung-mi’s corner right up through her last stand.
The addition of clueless police officers and a tough, no nonsense man (Park Hoon) searching for his missing sister — she being the one whose attempted murder was interrupted by Kyung-mi — opens the world up a bit, and it works to the film’s advantage. She remains the focus, but the introduction of other moving parts allows for some fresh and fascinating moral complexities. Park’s performance is fueled increasingly by rage, and it’s a tense stretch when he’s tasked with the kind of dark choice that calls South Korean cinema home.
Jin is a hearing actor, but you wouldn’t know it from her performance. Her signing is formal but grows intentionally sloppy and abbreviated the more intense things get, and her face reveals the wheels turning within as Kyung-mi makes hard choices on the run. Wi is equally good, but the longer Midnight goes the more outward facing his performance becomes. He’s the mean-spirited, over the top antagonist, so it fits, but it does at times threaten to outgrow the film’s more grounded reality.
Kwon, meanwhile, shows a real eye for detail in the film’s technical arenas. His camera captures the confusion of a big, open world just as easily as it finds the quieter, more confined moments. When a street lamp illuminates a circle, the safety of the glow extends only just so far before we start to fear what’s just beyond its reach. Sound design is equally important, and while Midnight occasionally goes silent to share Kyung-mi’s experience with viewers, it finds even more terror in highlighting the sounds that she’s unknowingly making — the sounds that draw Do-shik ever closer. Pair this with equally well-constructed films like Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016) or 2011’s Blind (also from South Korea) for a mini marathon of killers underestimating victims due to their perceived weaknesses.
Midnight will hold you until the very end, and while certain beats will frustrate it is entirely by design. This world of ours doesn’t treat everyone equally meaning some have to work that much harder than the rest. It can be tough enough for Kyung-mi just getting through her day, but with a relentless murderer on her case? Well that’s just unfair… for the murderer.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival