Eye For Film >> Movies >> Say Yes (2001) Film Review
The malevolent stranger has always been a classic movie staple. Whether supernatural or otherwise, they tap into primeval, existential fears of encountering pure, implacable (and potentially unstoppable) evil.
Of course, their roots go back even further – aren’t they just the big bad wolf, the wicked witch or the Devil himself, lurking on a lonely road, in updated form? But the difference in the cinema is that the viewer is trapped in their world for the duration, unable to turn the page or turn away.
It’s yielded some films that are all-time classics (Duel, The Terminator), a lot more that are exploitative, gratuitous garbage and even some (the original version of The Hitcher) that manage to be a bit of both.
So where does Sung-Hong Kim’s 2001 “exercise in pure terror”, now reissued on DVD, fit in? It certainly starts off in familiar territory. Jeong-hyun (Kim Ju-Hyuk) and Yun-hie (Choo Sang-mi) are a young, attractive couple living in Seoul, not too well off but blissfully happy after a year of marriage.
He’s a struggling writer, she does translation work to support him. So when his manuscript is published he splashes out on a car and whisks her off for a thank you/first anniversary trip to a coastal beauty spot.
Don’t these people EVER learn? As we all know, the sole purpose of such trips in the movies is for the writer and director to empty a large can of Bad Stuff on them. On the way, they encounter a solitary man, Em (Park Joong-Hoon) in a service station cafe. He persuades them to give him a lift – and from there it’s downhill all the way.
Em proves to be a Grade A psycho, deciding to torment the couple “because you looked so happy”. He follows them, everywhere, provokes Jeong to attack him in public and generally turns the trip into a nightmare. The couple can’t shake him off, and they soon realise that he doesn’t simply want to kill them – instead he wants to submit Jeong to a fate that is, literally, worse than death...
As I said, we have been here before – it’s basically The Hitcher, Duel and The Terminator rolled into one (in a definite nod to Cameron and Spielberg’s masterpieces, Kim the director makes effective use of a battered old truck as an engine of death). And there are intriguing echoes of Hitchcock’s Strangers n a Train.
But if there are only seven plots in the world, this is definitely one of the best in cinematic terms. And for a while I thought Say Yes might turn out to be an unjustly neglected cracker. The direction is tight and sharp, the script lean and economic, and the performances spot-on. Park is a very convincing study of a man with a brutal past that has purged him of every feeling except hate and sadism, but has a formidable intelligence for executing his schemes; Choo takes what could be simply a ‘scream queen’ role and makes the young wife an intelligent, resourceful and sympathetic heroine; and Kim offers a study of a milquetoast intellectual finding an undreamed-of capacity for rage and violence that recalls Dustin Hoffman in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
Kept to a compact 80-90 minutes this could have been a classic, but the director spins it out past the point of believability. When the couple go to the authorities, the cops’ reaction places the trio into each other’s orbit even more – I’m no expert on South Korean police procedure, but to me it simply didn’t make sense. And the multiple climaxes take the “he’s dead – no he isn’t” convention to absurd extremes. The point may be to suggest some supernatural dimension to Park’s character but there’s not enough done to firm that up, and the audience reaction is more likely to be: “no one could get up from that”.
It also becomes progressively more gory and violent, to a really pretty unpleasant extent. I’d hesitate to lump it with the “extreme cinema” genre for which South Korea has become notorious, but there’s a similar sense of pushing the boundaries for no particularly good reason. The end result is simply to distance the audience even more from the protagonists’ plight. And with a DVD, if you’re not hooked, you CAN exit the malevolent stranger’s world, any time you like.
Not a terrible film, then, but one that fails to deliver on its early promise and in the end only reminds you of other, better ones.Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2008