Studio: RAM Releasing
Director: Jung Huh
Writer: Jung Huh
Producer: Eui-sung Kim
Stars: Mi-seon Jeon, Jung-hee Moon, Hyeon-ju Son, Ji-yeong Kim
While investigating the disappearance of his brother, a man and his family become the targets of a mysterious figure determined to break into their home.
Aside from a possibly unhealthy compulsion to scrub his skin until it bleeds and to make sure every bottle label faces the same direction in his refrigerator, Sung-soo leads an ideal life. His wife is kept in fur coats, his two children appear content, and their entire family lives inside a luxury high-rise protected by electronic keypads and 24/7 video surveillance.
It turns out that Sung-soo’s OCD is rooted in a tragic event from his hush-hush past. Sung-soo had a brother with a skin disorder. Possibly to put those unsightly sores out of the picture, and possibly to put his hands on the family fortune, Sung-soo corroborated a story of sexual impropriety that sent his brother away at a very young age. The truth of that damning accusation is a matter of some question. Yet after receiving a phone call informing him that his now adult sibling is inexplicably missing, Sung-soo cannot let sleeping dogs lie.
Sung-soo investigates his estranged brother’s apartment. Not only does he find hidden panels connecting multiple domiciles, but underneath every doorbell in the building is a crudely scribbled code. Sung-soo quickly deduces that someone has identified the residents of each unit by gender and number, although for what reason he has no idea. Things grow weirder still when he comes home to find the same code next to every door in his own building, and a shape in a black motorcycle helmet stalking his family. Could this be the work of Sung-soo’s troubled brother, or is something more sinister afoot?
Korean thriller “Hide and Seek” is a masterful movie about being unsafe in one’s own home that doesn’t require killers in creative masks to make you feel uncomfortable. “Hide and Seek’ would be a remarkable achievement in cinematic suspense no matter who turned out to be steering its course. The fact that writer/director Jung Huh is a first-time feature filmmaker makes it all the more stunning.
Huh displays a natural instinct for camera placement and beat alternation that other directors spend entire careers developing an understanding of. “Hide and Seek” features twists, flashbacks, and red herrings, but it is otherwise a straightforward tale that rarely slows down long enough to become predictable because its style is so invigorated. Suspense is consistently tight whether Sung-soo is scrubbing a toilet or chasing a lead. And the tension remains high from the very first setup all the way through to the very last scene. Maintaining an unrelenting essence even when the story quiets down is a genuinely impressive feat.
The mystery is so maddening that it becomes excruciatingly frustrating in the most entertaining way possible. You want so badly to see this persistent, faceless, silent stalker unmasked that you end up exemplifying those clichéd thriller descriptions as you find yourself edging up in your seat with an ever-tightening grip on the armrest, remote, or nearest loved one.
“Hide and Seek” arrives in an era when genre films constantly work around modern conveniences, always finding ways for cell phones to not work, or cutting a power cord to jump a scripting hurdle that way. Cell phones play a key communication role in “Hide and Seek,” but Huh keeps their use organic to his main goal of delivering a character-driven mystery. There is a subtle underlying message about how cameras, monitors, and passcodes only provide an illusion of security, and that no amount of surveillance and protective countermeasures can match the sheer determination of a psychopath with a lead pipe. More interesting is how Huh weaves contemporary technology into clever story-related uses without making a big deal about it.
Undoubtedly, “Hide and Seek” would wobble on a house of cards if its story were held up to intense scrutiny. Or maybe even just a pinch of scrutiny. To maximize thrill satisfaction while watching, eliminate any thought that starts with “wait a minute” or backtracks towards a previous detail to recalculate if it adds up or not.
When an innocent bystander is pursued because he happens to be wearing the same distinct outfit as the mystery stalker, there is no arguing that it anything other than a contrived moment. But no more so than when Ben Tramer met his demise in “Halloween II” because he was coincidentally decked out in the same coveralls and white mask as Michael Myers. Such moments are so few and far between however, that turning the other cheek is done without “Hide and Seek” even asking.
The film relies on numerous shots of quiet creeping. Trimming some of the ones that stretch too long might have sped the pace and made “Hide and Seek” a bona fide classic, but most of the moments are still effectively executed with expert precision. There is little doubt that “Hide and Seek” would have its work cut out for it to come off as fully satisfying on a second viewing. But it is that first spin that counts above all else, and that one is a true pulse-pounder grounded in a reality-based premise that is as frightening as it is fun.
NOTE: The film’s Korean title is “Sum-bakk-og-jil.”
Review Score: 85