As a huge fan of Asian action cinema, I found the 2008 documentary 'Action Boys' (우린 액션배우다), which followed the lives of a group of stuntmen in the Seoul Action School, to be hugely enjoyable. Such was my enjoyment that I visited the school in the same year, to witness first hand the rigors of the training that they went through. Of course a huge part of that enjoyment came from the way first time director, and student of the school himself, Jeong Byeong-gil, structured the story. So I felt pretty excited when four years later, it was announced his first full movie was set for release, ‘Confession of Murder' (내가 살인범이다).
I’ll be the first to admit though that upon reading the story line, I had no idea what to expect. It’s fifteen years since the last murder took place by a serial killer who targeted women, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and with the case still unsolved, the statute of limitations is about to expire. Once it does, a mysterious character played by K-drama actor Park Si-hoo, making his movie debut, comes out of the woodwork with an autobiography, graphically detailing how he committed all of the murders. The detective who was on the case, played by Jeong Jae-yeong (‘Moss' 이끼, ‘Castaway on the Moon' 김씨 표류기), has his doubts if he really is the killer. But first he has to contend with the families of the victims, one of which has clearly been styled after the bow and arrow wielding Bae Doona of ‘The Host' (괴물), who have formed a club to kill Jae-yeong at the earliest opportunity.
You can see it’s supposed to be a crime drama, but something about the details somehow made me smile. Was this movie really going to attempt to get away with being serious, with such details as a best selling serial killer, and a club of blood thirsty family members!? Byeong-gil also wrote the screenplay, so I hoped that whatever he had in mind, he could pull it off without it becoming too laughable. What I didn’t expect though, was for the action to be thrown onto the screen in such abundance. Sure he’s a graduate from the Seoul Action School, but the synopsis simply didn’t seem to lend itself to many action movie scenarios.
Imagine my surprise then when it opens to a blistering seven minutes of Jae-yeong viciously throwing down with a masked assailant in a makkoli bar, sending glass and cutlery smashing everywhere, which segues into a ferocious chase on foot featuring several extended one take shots, with the camera following them through dark alley ways and even under cars. It’s an exhilarating and frantic sequence to watch, and one which ends on a particularly wince inducing moment. Similarly, later there’s an insane car chase, with Si-hoo grappling with members of the victim’s families on top of cars, a stretcher, and in an ambulance.
It’s worth noting that the action sequences are all choreographed by another Action School Graduate, Kwon Kwi-deok, who at the end of ‘Action Boys’ is the only one still working in stunts. In the four years since that documentary was made, Kwi-deok has become a respected stuntman and action director in Korea, having worked with the likes of Kim Ji-woon, Ryoo Seung-wan, and Na Hong-jin. He even makes a cameo as a live fish chauffeur.
Between these thrilling moments, it becomes clear Byeong-gil never meant to make this as a dark thriller, so while the plot sounds dark, it’s never particularly portrayed that way on screen. There are plenty of comical moments, such as when the victims family arrange for one of them to dress as a pool cleaner, and drop a bunch of snakes into the pool in which Si-hoo is swimming. There are also a lot of subtle swipes at the way the media is willing to make a celebrity out of anyone, such as when it comes into doubt that Si-hoo may not be the real killer, hordes of young girls’ crowd around screaming their adoration for him, and waving colourful banners that pronounce him to be the real killer!
This tone takes up over an hour of the movie, however at some point Byeong-gil realizes he has to bring everything to it’s close somehow, and the final quarter moves away from both the action and the comedy in order to deliver it’s conclusion, which as with so many things Korean, features a somewhat tragic late in the day revelation. This is perhaps the only time when it becomes clear that this is a debut movie from a new director and screen writer, and there is so much quality on show that for me it was forgivable. Byeong-gil perhaps didn’t think about the fact that if you have an hours worth of great action and black comedy, people are going to expect things to progress in the same way, maybe heading for a big action finale, which to be fair it delivers in part, rather than a complete change of tone to wrap things up.
Still with a second viewing and the correct expectations, I’ve no doubt ‘Confession of Murder’ will still be a rewarding viewing experience, if not more so than the first. Byeong-gil has proven that he has talent to spare, and that his time at the Seoul Action School hasn’t gone to waste, with some of the most exciting action to come out of Korea in far too long contained within it’s run time. With a slightly tighter script to work with, Korea might have potentially found its next Ryoo Seung-wan.
By Paul Bramhall
Fan of Korean crime thrillers? Cinema on the Park recently focused on this popular genre of Korean cinema. For more Korean cinema check out the 2014 Cinema on the Park screening schedule online now! The weekly film night is completely free so get along and check it out!