Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The challenging moral and psychological undercurrent that keeps it interesting as the primary narrative begins to flounder." | Photo: Vill Lee Film

When ambitious politician Kim Yong-Koo (Jongman Kim) comes home one night to find his wife frantically cleaning the car with which their son has struck and killed a man, you might think you know what kind of film you're going to get. Tonally, you're probably right, but the route it adopts is by no means straightforward. There's an immediate break with convention when Kim persuades his family that the best thing to do is to confess to the police - but, unfortunately for him, he only knows part of the story.

Shot mainly in stark public buildings and on dark, rainswept streets, Idol will remind many viewers of Søren Sveistrup's influential 2007 TV series The Killing. Not only is it visually influenced by Nordic noir but it takes a similar approach to structure, layering on the twists in a way that is initially exciting but gradually becomes laborious. Essentially, it's comprised of three acts: one following Kim; one following the father of the dead man, Joong-sik (Sul Kyung-gu); and one following the dead man's fiancée, played by the estimable Chun Woo-hee. A Chinese immigrant, she has, as she puts it, had to do terrible things to make it this far. Marriage would have made her safe. Now that possibility has been taken from her, she'll do whatever it takes to remain in South Korea - and to get revenge on those who ruined her original plan.

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Joong-sik is perhaps the most sympathetic of these characters, though how you feel about him is likely to be determined in large part by a startling piece of opening narration is which he reflects on the way he used to masturbate is son, who was mentally disabled and unable to do it for himself, in order to provide him with relief. Were his actions abusive or was he helping him - was he also keeping him safe from exploitation? It's a question the film never finds an answer for and it's this challenging moral and psychological undercurrent that keeps it interesting as the primary narrative begins to flounder. Joong-sik is intriguing because he never thinks of himself as an innocent, though he's willing to keep searching for innocence in others. The rest of the film is built on the assumption that pretty much anybody will do terrible things when placed under enough pressure, an idea whose potential has been amply demonstrated elsewhere in the noir genre but which loses some of its impact here as a result of being overplayed.

Idol is screening at this year's Fantasia International Film Festival. Korean genre cinema does tend towards the episodic so it's likely that this film's home audience will find less of a problem with its convoluted storyline and multiplicity of characters than international audiences do. It certainly has style and the more ponderous stretches are interspersed with flashes of brilliance when director Lee Su-jin gets to grips with the action. All three leads invest heavily in their characters and there's some interesting thematic work around the changing meaning of family - in both South Korea and China - and what this means in the context of personal ambition. Despite its shortcomings, this is a film with quite a bit to recommend it, and it's an interesting curiosity for noir fans.

Reviewed on: 17 Jul 2019
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Idol packshot
Politician Koo Myung-hui discovers his wife in the garage, cleaning their son’s bloodstained car. He has just run someone over.

Director: Lee Su-jin

Writer: Lee Su-jin

Starring: Han Seok-kyu, Sul Kyung-gu, Chun Woo-hee

Year: 2019

Runtime: 140 minutes

Country: South Korea

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