Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Face (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 14, 2005

Directed by Yoo Sang-Gon/screenplay by Park Chul-Hee/starring Shin Hyun-Jun, Song Yoon-Ah/Tartan Asia Extreme

A forensic sculptor is enlisted to reconstruct the faces of the victims of a serial killer who burns their bodies in a vat of acid.

It seems that there are basically two recurring themes in Asian horror right now – the prototypical “girl ghost stories” that have become so popular with American audiences, and the “serial killer who taunts his investigator” plots that seem to be influenced by Hollywood hits like Silence of the Lambs and Seven.

The Korean thriller Face manages to be novel not by striking out in new directions, but by combining the two well-worn subgenres. This could have been an exercise in simple gimmickry, like “it’s Alien meets Die Hard”, but this seemingly generic flick turns out to be a decent little genre movie, with a twist that might give M. Night Shyamalan a run for his money.

Hyun-min (Hyun-Jun) is a guy with problems. On the one hand, a serial killer is on the loose, burning his victims in an acid vat so their identities can’t be discovered. It’s his job to reconstruct their faces, using their skulls as a template to find out what they looked like with flesh attached. On the other hand, his young daughter is dying of a congenital heart disease, and he’s forced to take a leave of absence to be at her side while she waits for a new heart to be delivered. Given that he’s the only guy capable of doing his particular job, leaving it at this time is rather painful but unavoidable under the circumstances.

Even when Hyun-min is visited by your typical girl ghost, who he surmises may have been a victim of the aforementioned serial killer, he’s not convinced to go back to work. But when badgered by plucky, young and gorgeous aspiring facial reconstructor Seon-young (Yoon-Ah), he finally gives in and agrees to work on the project at home, with Seon-young assisting of course. As they get closer to finding the identity of the latest victim, they uncover a conspiracy and realize that the killer’s motivations may be more closely linked to them than they could have predicted.

That’s pretty much all I can tell you about the plot, because to give any more away would spoil the fun. I will say that I had one major logic problem with the twist (I’ll just say it involves an object, and leave it at that), but it didn’t ruin the movie for me.

Under the direction of first-time feature helmer Sang-Gon, whose background is in short films, Face is appropriately dark and atmospheric, with a genuine sense of oppressive dread throughout. Its twist is a good one, logical reservations aside; it seems obvious afterwards, but I was genuinely surprised by it. Some viewers may take issue with the film’s use of certain flashback scenes as a “cheat”, but I found it clever enough, and gave it a sense of revelation in that we haven’t seen exactly what we thought we saw.

That said, those looking for something “deep” in their Asian fright fare might want to search elsewhere, because there’s nothing particularly meaningful or insightful here; it’s a smart, stylishly shot little shocker, but that’s about all it is. And there’s nothing particularly “extreme” about its handling of the subject matter – there’s a bit of gore here and there, but nothing that would really offend delicate sensibilities. It’s the Asian equivalent of an average Hollywood major-studio serial-killer flick. There’s very little new or groundbreaking here, and if you’re OK with that going in, you won’t be disappointed. Not every Asian film can be a mind-blowing classic, after all, just as every American film isn’t meant to win Oscars. This is a decent little genre film that proves to be more entertaining than expected, and sometimes that’s enough.

*** 10/14/05

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