Dr. Seung-hoon sedates his landlord before medical check-up when the old man begins telling him a convincing murder confession.
South Korea has consistently been a source of inspiring, off-kilter, original and engrossing cinema – Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy, Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host,” Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil,” Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan,” and Baek Jong-Yeol’s “The Beauty Inside,” to name a few. “Bluebeard” initially delivers, as it steadily builds momentum with a strong stylistic grasp – but its belligerent final third reveals that director Lee Soo-youn still has some ways to go to reach the level of his revered peers. A weird amalgamation of Agatha Christie, Brian De Palma and Eli Roth, by turns entertaining and infuriating, this strange beast is perhaps worth a look – if only to cause a heated debate with your film-geek friends over the twist-upon-twist insanity, which it delivers in such heaps, suffocation may be a factor for the uninitiated.
The film starts off on an ominous note: as a Seoul weather report announces longer but warmer winters, a body bubbles up through chunks of melting ice in the Han River – whose waters “used to unfreeze completely by April.” The camera keeps elegantly panning up to the highway traffic, and into a bus, where Dr. Seung-hoon (Jo Jin-woong) wears an expression as desolate as the vast, empty construction sites through which he’s driven.
Dr. Seung-hoon does not seem like a happy man. He works at a somewhat decrepit, overfilled colonoscopy clinic in the Gangnam district that’s on the verge of bankruptcy. He examines people’s insides with his assistant Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah), whose offers to “air out” and get lunch he continuously declines. He looks for “answers” in mystery novels, falls asleep on the bus and comes to work early. He pays alimony, argues with his unstable ex-wife and barely gets any time with his smart-ass son. His boss is, well, a “douchebag.”
He gets his meat at the local butchers, run by an old man (Shin Goo) with a bad habit of consuming raw flesh, and his creepily cheerful son Sung-geun (Kim Dae-myung). Crucially, they also happen to be Seung-hoon’s landlords. The monotony of Seung-hoon’s life is shattered when, during the butcher’s routine colonoscopy, his drugged rant about dismantling joints turns into a confession about dismantling human victims. What unfolds from here on is an enveloping sense of Hitchcockian paranoia, with news reports of body parts being discovered, cops snooping around, and our good doctor putting pieces of the puzzle together, desperately trying to “out” the butchers…
And then the film switches gears about halfway through, with a twist involving his ex-wife and a retired cop. This is soon followed by yet another twist, both predictable and far-fetched, plus way over-explained with damn flashbacks. Frequent nightmarish dream visions are… nightmarish, but been-there-done-that, the character waking up in sweat/screaming/choking/[insert verb here]. Put it this way: the film ends at the 84-minute mark, and then goes on for another half an hour to delve deep into the pits of convoluted absurdity.
Too bad. If only Soo-youn managed to sustain that borderline-Lynchian mood and perhaps take the film into a purposefully surreal, Takashi Miike territory, it could’ve worked. “Bluebeard” certainly has some splendid things going for it. Seoul is effectively depicted as a city running wild with rampant serial killers. Jo Jin-woong, appearing in nearly every scene, showcases his versatility, especially after his sleazy performance in last year’s “The Handmaiden.” Often morbidly funny, touching upon hefty themes of parenthood, apathy, alienation – and how it spawns paranoia and change – while balancing a fine line between hilarity and horror, particularly in the early scenes involving the doctor and the butcher’s son, Soo-youn was really onto something here.
Even the darkest South Korean cinema tends to have moments of unexpected levity, and this one’s no different. “Wrong hole!” a sedated female patient exclaims during a colonoscopy, startling our doctor and his assistant. “It’s my first time doing anal.” “It’s like diaphragm in human,” the butcher’s jolly son tells a terrified Seung-hoon, while offering him thin skirt steak. During the culmination, crazed Seung-hoon screams in panic: “Local police and the butchers are in league with each other!” And then the scene cuts away…
Speaking of, quite a few scenes fade out, or cut, or “stay behind the closed door” at crucial moments purposefully, letting your imagination work out the rest. Unfortunately, while intermittently effective, those abrupt shifts in tone and plot lead to a disjointed narrative, with major pacing issues and lapses in logic, escalating into pure madness towards the end. Director Lee Soo-youn seems to be flexing his cinematic muscles, this being his second feature after 2003’s “Uninvited.” Here’s hoping he doesn’t fly off the treadmill next time.
Available on Blu-ray & DVD August 15th