A doctor becomes entangled in a gruesome serial killer case, suspecting one of his patients is involved…
Lee Soo-yeon isn’t exactly the most prolific of filmmakers, the Korean writer director’s last feature having been her debut way back in 2003, the popular Gianna Jun-starring ghost story The Uninvited. Lee finally returns fourteen years later with Bluebeard, a psychological thriller headlined by actor Jo Jin-woong (The Handmaiden) as a troubled doctor who becomes involved in a serial murder case when dismembered bodies and severed body parts start turning up, driving the poor man dangerously close to the edge. Having set a new box office record for a domestic March release, the film screened at a number of festivals around the world, including the Udine Far East Film Festival, the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival.
Jo Jin-woong plays Seung-hoon, a doctor who is forced to relocate to a commuter town hospital after his fancy clinic in Seoul goes bankrupt, now divorced and living above a butcher shop. The film kicks off with the discovery of a body (a headless torso, to be more precise) in the Han River, which floats to the surface after having been trapped under the Winter ice, thought by police to be part of an ongoing serial murder case. Seung-hoon soon becomes involved after his elderly landlord and butcher shop neighbour (Shin Goo, Righteous Ties) comes to visit him as a patient, and seems to confess to the crimes while under sedation, inspiring the doctor to start an investigation of his own. A fan of detective novels, he sneaks into the man’s house and finds the severed head of a woman, the finger of suspicion pointing at his odd butcher son Sung-geun (Kim Dae-myung, Pandora).
Although its premise might not sound particularly original, Bluebeard is actually quite different to other Korean serial killer thrillers, Lee Soo-yeon putting the emphasis on atmosphere and psychological chills. The film is far more concerned with traditional murder mystery-style twists and turns rather than visceral shocks, and despite the subject matter Lee largely steers clear of showing anything too graphic, a handful of nasty moments aside. The tension comes mainly from the viewer trying to guess who the killer is, and Lee does a good job in this regard, at least for those who don’t mind manipulation and misdirection, which the film has plenty of and which can at times get a little much. Still, there’s fun to be had in going along for the ride, and the film comes across as pleasingly old-fashioned rather than too contrived, with a few genuine (and sometimes confusing) surprises along the way.
The other thing which might put some viewers off is the fact that the film is very slow moving, and definitely requires a fair amount of patience, Lee being in no hurry whatsoever to get to its main revelations. Though never dull, the film does spend a lot of time simply following around Seung-hoon as he gradually joins the dots and with there being no real set pieces or suspense scenes to break things up, it’s perhaps not one for those looking for an action-packed, chase-filled thriller in the usual manner. As with The Uninvited, which was similarly slower and far more sober and sombre than other ghost films of the time, Lee here goes for a deliberate and thoughtful approach, pushing the viewer to try and pick up on small background details and subtle hints. At the same time, though some of its plot twists are a bit far-fetched, the film generally has a grounded air, thanks largely to Jo Jin-woong’s excellent lead performance, which really helps to tie things together and to anchor things when it gets crazier during the final stretch.
For viewers comfortable with the leisurely pace and the absence of popcorn thrills, Bluebeard has a lot to offer as a refreshingly different kind of Korean serial killer film, complex and multi-layered, if perhaps a little too convinced of its own cleverness. As with The Uninvited, Lee Soo-yeon succeeds in serving up which bucks genre trends, and with there being few female directors working in mainstream Korean cinema, it has to be hoped that she won’t wait another fourteen years to make her next film.