Featured image: Wi Ha-Joon as Do Shik in Midnight. (Courtesy of Fantasia.)
Directed and written by Kwon Oh-seung. Starring Wi Ha-Joon, Jin Ki-Yoo, Kil Hae-yeon. Runtime 1h 43 min. Midnight had its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 22, 2021.
I’m a total sucker for South Korean thrillers, and thrillers in general, especially ones with such a great concept. And if they nail the execution, I’ll be sure to love the film. That’s totally the case with Kwon Oh-seung’s first feature film, the brilliant Midnight. It’s totally my taste in film subjectively, and I think it’s so great.
Here, Do Shik (Wi Ha-Joon) is a serial killer on the loose in a large city, killing men and women, and in the opening scene we see how cunning he is, luring a victim to her death. Then, he calls the cop to show what he’s “found.” He’s easy to trust because he’s well-spoken and comes across as a good citizen, but he’s just really good at playing the part.
On the evening where our action really starts, he comes across call-centre worker Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-Yoo) and her mother (Kil Hae-yeon), who are going out for dinner. Do-Shik observes that they’re both deaf; and is immediately interested by that vulnerability. Another woman, So Jung (Hye-Yoon Kim) enters the picture when he’s going after the mother. So Jung walks by, and that spares the mother’s life.
This starts an evening of survival for the two groups – the mother and daughter, as well as So Jung and her brother, Jong Tak (Park Hoon), who is searching for her. The pacing is phenomenal, made better by an amazing villain. He’s brilliant and so well-written; as he chases them with a baseball cap and mask, then he’s scared off and returns as a curious businessman in a suit.
They have no clue they’re so close to danger, and that dynamic makes this work so well. As well, when the deaf mother and daughter try to communicate with others, especially in high-stress situations, it’s terrifying because they can’t get their message across. It’s frustrating for them, and we empathize. They’re trapped by their lack of communication. That’s where Midnight is at its most fascinating psychologically: People automatically trust our killer more because they see a man in a suit who can communicate well and improvise.
The film is eloquent in how it shows the deafness and how they’re warned of danger, like a clapping monkey or motion-sensor lights in their home. The way director Kwon Oh-seung uses tools like this to his advantage is great, calling to mind films like Don’t Breathe (but with blindness), or Mike Flanagan’s Hush.
I can’t recall any sound design being “muted” here to reflect their situation, but a scene in a parking garage where Kyung-mi runs from the killer is intense. It’s effective as she makes a ton of noise, and she doesn’t know how loud she’s being. It builds our terror as we cringe, wanting her to be quiet. Oh-seung’s scenarios never tire in this and we’re always rooting for these women to survive the night and outwit the villain.
One impressive aspect is the character building. The mother-daughter relationship, especially, is lovely. The fast-paced film has emotional and powerful moments when it takes a moment to build character during the madness. We get some of that during the night as the film never takes its foot off the gas, thanks to quick dialogue, too.
Before that, we see Kyung-mi working at the call centre as she talks to deaf customers through video chat using sign language. We see how cheeky she is, too, at a dinner with clients as they shit talk her in Korean and she does the same in sign language, because she knows.
A favourite moment of mine is a simple one that shows their bond in such a thrilling scene. The mother’s so excited to see Kyung-mi and she runs down an alley to Kyung-mi’s car where they’re meeting. While Kyung-mi is in her car, her noise barometer intensifies, warning of an oncoming vehicle. Kyung-mi desperately tries to make the mom stop in time. The scene is just so well-staged. The relief we feel after it, and that emotional connection even though we don’t yet know them, makes this intense, white-knuckle moment that much stronger.
Midnight had its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 22, 2021. It plays again on Tuesday, August 24 at 9 a.m. Information can be found here.