Ha Jung-woo plays the lead in this captivating one-hander, one-roomer, where much of the action unfolds outside the window…
Banished to talk radio, recently deposed newsroom big shot Yoon Young-hwa (Ha Jung-woo, The Berlin File, Nameless Gangster, The Yellow Sea, My Dear Enemy) gets a chance to enter the big time once again when an alleged bomber calls his show and detonates a device on the Mapo Bridge. Asking that the president publically apologise for the death of three construction co-workers who died while fixing the bridge, the terrorist threatens more bombings if his demands are not met. Yoon realises he can use this to his advantage; all he has to do is get the bomber live on air before calling the authorities.
When a second device traps hostages on the bridge, including a news crew headed by his ex-wife, reporter Lee Ji-soo (Kim So-jin), Yoon soon finds that everyone had their own agenda, from his producer Cha Dae-eun (Lee Geung-young, The Berlin File, Sunny, Paju, Meet Mr. Daddy) to the anti-terrorist police forces and even the government, and he is caught in the middle. As the nation watches, can he really help stop the bomber before any more lives are lost?
Keeping the entire story within the confines of Yoon’s radio studio come makeshift newsroom set, writer/director Kim Byung-Woo largely succeeds in keeping the narrative turning. The camera is constantly moving with handheld techniques, and Kim takes advantage of monitor screens and even the widow outside the set to show the chaos of the terrorist attack. Kim deserves credit for resisting the temptation to step outside of the newsroom, as so many directors would.
There is something rather pure about Kim’s concept. There are echoes of Orson Welles famous War Of The Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 that was said to have caused so much widespread panic, aligning it to more recent thrillers that unfold in ‘real time’ over one location. Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth is perhaps the most obvious example (a concept later inverted as Cellular, where the principal character is moving, but on a mobile phone – so superbly remade as Connected by Benny Chan), but perhaps closer in spirit is Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried, where a truck driver played by Ryan Reynolds finds himself buried and his air running out. Earlier John Badham’s Nick Of Time explored the real time notion; largely considered a failure, both critically and in box office sales, any film that stars Christopher Walken and Johnny Depp (while he was still interesting) can never be a complete loss. Even this year Cortés’ produced another film of limited, though not quite so singular, location largely taking place in ‘real time’, the enjoyably ridiculous Grand Piano, where a virtuoso literally plays for his life.
Talking at a Q&A in London in December 2013 following a screening of the film, lead star Ha Jung-woo revealed that the film consisted of 21 chapters of five to 10 minutes, all shot in one-take. That this never feels stagnant for all of its taut 97 minutes is in part due to the time and consideration director Kim took in constructing the work before shooting began, even compiling a demo reel with shots from other movies. Along with such meticulous construction, it also took Kim a while to find a backer for the modest budget. It’s notable that his previous work, Written (Riteun, 리튼), was also something of a ‘high-concept’ piece (though much less successful).
Unsurprisingly it falls upon Ha Jung-woo to carry the film, for what could largely be classed – despite strong support – as a ‘one-hander’. Ha’s previous experience in theatre truly comes to the fore here for one of his most solid performances of late outside of Nameless Gangster. The only flaws come in terms of the plotting and events, which reach preposterous (if still entertaining) heights towards the end. That implausibility is not helped by various holes in the script, such as where exactly did the bomber pick up such incredible knowledge of detonation and bombs (not to mention the actual explosives)? But hell, it’s just a movie, right?
If Yoon’s character is somewhat morally compromised by his decision to take advantage of terrorist, he’s perhaps the most naïve here – never fully realising the consequences or even thinking that far beyond taking the opportunity to recover his career. He never seems to consider that he could be as used, deceived and betrayed by his colleagues, police and government, who value his life even less than he does others. The film builds to an oddly nihilistic climax, almost suggesting that the director had some sort of political agenda.
Indeed, at the Q&A, actor Ha dodged several questions pertaining to there being some sort of message in the film, maintaining that director Kim had intended these merely as plot devices. And yet it’s hard imagine an American or even British equivalent that would end in such an indictment of the respective government or authorities without it at least being played for satirical, if not truly political, comment. Perhaps, even at an unconscious level, South Korean’s are more untrusting of their government than even we in the West are, and effectively recent history might suggest they have reason to be. Before some rampant flag waving towards the end, The Flu expounds some similarly harsh judgements from the Korean government on its populace. Or perhaps it’s just more the case that not so long ago such indictments would never have been allowed on film, even for entertainment value. (And in some regions of Asia it still wouldn’t.)
Utterly thrilling and watchable, The Terror Live is just the sort of film that has the potential to cross over to Western audiences (already having a limited run in the US and Canada). Let’s hope the film makes it to the UK properly at some point in the near future.