[From September 20th to the 30th, the Korea Society in New York will be hosting a series of screenings called “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the week, we will be bringing you reviews of a select number of them. For more information, head here.]
A lot of people ask me why I like Korean movies so much, and that’s not always an easy question to answer. “I just do” isn’t satisfying enough, especially from someone who has to justify his enjoyment or distaste of at least one Korean film almost every week. I understand that, but it’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly what really sets them apart.
Fortunately, every once in a while I see a film that reminds me exactly why I love Korean films so much. It fits some sort of puzzle piece into my brain, and I can say, “Why do I like Korean movies so much? Because of films like Blind.”
“Never heard of it,” comes the dismissive response.
“Well then,” I say in an overly arrogant tone. “Let me enlighten you.”
Blind (Beulraindeu | 블라인드)
Director: Ahn Sang-Hoon
Country: South Korea
Min Soo-Ah (Kim Ha-Neul) is a young woman blinded in the accident that killed her younger brother. But despite her disability, she seems to get along reasonably well. The majority of the film takes place three years after the incident, and Min Soo-Ah has clearly gotten her bearings. Her heightened senses of smell and hearing are helpful, especially in static situations, but she’s not Daredevil. For movement, she relies on her seeing-eye dog Wisey, the cane that most people associate with blindness, and some other fancy gadgetry that seems to be capable of tracking movement as well as traffic patterns. It’s imperfect, but it works.
One day, a man attempts to kidnap Min Soo-Ah, who thinks she is simply getting a cab ride home. After her would-be kidnapper hits someone, she is able to escape. A police file is opened and Detective Cho (Jo Hie-Bong) is called in to see what’s what. Given Min Soo-Ah’s disability, her perceptions of the incident are initially ignored, but after a little bit of heightened sense magic, she convinces Cho that she isn’t as useless as he initially imagined she was. She’s not quite an eyewitness, but she’s close enough. Fortunately, an eyewitness is found in the form of a teenager named Gi-Sub. But then the kidnapper, who is actually a serial killer, finds out about the witnesses, and he comes after them.
As I said in the introduction, Blind reminded me of what makes Korean films so special, and I should be a little bit more specific. Blind reminded me of why I love Korean thrillers so much. I love all kinds of Korean films, but the thrillers tend to be especially noteworthy, and that has to do with their commitment to the mortality of their characters. I often point to the 2008 film The Chaser as a good example of quintessential Korean cinema, and a lot of that comes from one scene about 3/4 of the way through, where a primary character is brutally murdered. I won’t explain the context because that would spoil the scene, but I will say that it’s the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t happen in an American movie. I can visualize how it would play out in an American film (hell, I’ve actually seen several where it played out in that way), but that moment changed things. From then on, I realized that nobody is safe. If you’re the protagonist, you can die. If you’re the antagonist, you can die. If you’re some random lady on the street, you can die. Nobody is safe.
Blind is the same way. Kim Ji-Woon’s I Saw the Devil is probably the pinnacle of the “everyone can die” mentality, and Blind doesn’t take it quite that far, but it goes far enough. The few who do survive certainly don’t come out unscathed. There is one moment in particular that will be intensely disturbing to a specific type of person, but again, spoilers. If you see the film (and you definitely should), you’ll know which one I’m talking about. But having that moment, unpleasant as it is, is important for the film. On the whole, thrillers aren’t as intense as they could/should be. Audiences go in with the expectation that certain characters will come out safely. Korean thrillers subvert the hell out of those expectations. As soon as you see a character die who you didn’t even imagine could die, then the intensity of every single moment following is ratcheted up. Blind is very successful at ratcheting up that tension. And it’s not just about the death, it’s about Min Soo-Ah’s disability.
The killer in Blind is a sick, sick person, and he knows that the main witness against him is blind. He knows that, regardless of her heightened senses, if he stays silent, she has no way of knowing that he isn’t just another stranger. This leads to some very tense moments throughout the film, where he is oh-so close, and only the audience knows it. You want to shout at the screen, “He’s behind you!” but unlike other films, where it’s the stupidity of a character causing them to not realize the danger they’re in, Min Soo-Ah is physically incapable of understanding her predicament.
From a cinematic standpoint, Min Soo-Ah’s disability gives Blind a very distinctive feel. Periodically, the film shifts to her perspective (or at least an equivalent of her perspective), as sounds or smells reverberate around the environment and change her perception of a scene. It’s something like what was done in Daredevil way back when, but here it’s far less comprehensive. She only sees fragments and is forced to put them together. Early on, I thought that the effect was slightly overused, but I understood its purpose in retrospect, and I felt that it was better balanced as the film went along. There is also a really fascinating chase sequence that is unlike any I have ever seen before, and it makes me wonder if there is really cell phone reception in Korean subway systems. If there is, I’m very jealous, but even if there isn’t, the inventiveness of the scene is such that I am likely to be talking about it for quite some time.
And that’s true about Blind in general. It’s an amazing film, and it’s one that deserves to be classified in the big leagues, next to much better known films like The Chaser and I Saw the Devil. No, it’s not quite as culturally significant as The Chaser (which singlehandedly reinvigorated the Korean film industry) or as incredible as I Saw the Devil (which stands as one of my favorite revenge films of all time), but it’s up damn high up there. After people ask me why I like Korean movies so much and I give them a non-answer, they often ask for a few recommendations. For the most part, they are the more well-known films, since they’re usually well-known for a reason. But there are also the ones that no one has heard about. Films like Blind. I’m hoping it hits stateside sometime soon, because telling everyone how awesome something is is pretty cool, but getting to talk with them about how awesome it is is so much better.