Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Ah high school. I remember fondly the academic pressures, social rivalries, and stairwell trysts with nuns. But most of all I remember the daily race against time to find the murderer before he or she found me first! Good times indeed. And it seems I’m not alone in those recollections as a new Korean thriller features that time honored motif as its central plot. (I’m referring to the one about finding the killer, not the one about reaching second base with Sister Kneelotta.) Recent Korean flicks of the non-supernatural variety have developed quite a nasty streak when it comes to the degree of violence and torture shown onscreen. Bloody Reunion, Death Bell, and The Butcher are just a few of the Korean thrillers from the past few years that gleefully turned the grue knob to eleven. Does 4th Period Mystery follow the same bloody path?
Jeong-hun is the best student at his school… smart, popular, and headed for a successful future. His rival, Tae-gyu, takes any and every opportunity to knock him down both verbally and physically, and the two are known enemies amongst the other students. One afternoon Tae-gyu pushes Jeong-hun too far and the latter threatens Tae-gyu with a knife… an act that’s witnessed by another student. Jeong-hun walks away from the situation, but shortly after the beginning of 4th period class he returns to find Tae-gyu dead. The boy has been stabbed repeatedly, and still in shock, Jeong-hun picks up the bloody knife off a nearby desk just as another classmate enters the room. Her name is Da-jeong, a loner obsessed with murderers and not so affectionately known as “Curtain Witch” or “curtain head” because of her (j-horror inspired) penchant for letting her hair hang straight down her face. Da-jeong takes a quick survey of the situation before deciding that not only is Jeong-hun innocent of the crime but that they have less than an hour to find the real killer before the class period ends and the body is discovered. The pair set out in search of the murderer and soon discover that just about everyone’s a suspect… and even more unsettling, the murderer is now after them as well.
Imagine the under-seen but very cool film Three O’Clock High, but instead of a bully threatening to kick your ass after school you’ve got a murderer out to get you before the end of class period. It’s a fairly high concept setup (that I fully expect to be remade for US consumption) that finds itself divided comfortably into two parts. The first half hour of the movie is devoted to introducing the characters, setting up the rivalry and relationships, and providing glimpses of people and things that may or may not have deadly meaning as the story progresses. Once the murder occurs however, the movie kicks into gear with a fast but steady pace as our heroes race around campus trying to stay one step ahead of the killer.
And I do mean race… the two spend quite a bit of time running up and down hallways and staircases and across fields and rooftops. It’s almost tiring to watch at times, but when combined with solid editing and a punchy and energetic score you can’t help but get caught up in the action. The setup scenes show us teachers with knives, with sadistic approaches towards punishment, and with secrets. There’s no shortage of suspects here. We also see a sense of humor in the references to one teacher as MBC (for margarine, butter, and cheese, because he’s extremely greasy) and any scene with the kid pictured directly above. Good god that hair…
Director Lee Sang-yong imbues the movie with a visual flair beyond the usual in his use of coloring and split screens. As the teens hypothesize their way through the murder and the motive we see it happening in black and white around their still-color selves. It’s a attractive style that provides more opportunity for humor as their theory that the killer is a student results in us seeing the masked killer arrive late to class, apologize for his tardiness, and take his seat amongst the other students. You can’t help but smile at the image before we’re thrust back to reality and the bloody corpse sitting before us.
4th Period Mystery is a fun and fast paced thriller that trades hardcore violence and gore for wit and style instead. It’s a welcome change of pace from many of the more overtly violent Korean films in the genre. There may be no doubt that our intrepid teen detectives are going to survive the day, but there still manages to be suspense and mystery as to the identity of the killer thanks to a handful of highly suspect characters. The actual denouement is a little underwhelming in its reveal of a motive, but it’s a small misstep in an otherwise enjoyable ride. Fast pace, engaging characters, and a sharp eye for attention-getting visual tricks result in a fun and breezy thriller that entertains instead of disgusts. Torture and violence is fine, but those looking for something lighter that still manages to thrill can do far worse than this.
The Upside: Balanced tone between suspense and comedy; fast-moving; Kang So-ra (as Da-jeong) is easy on the eyes; thrilling without being sadistic in its violence; stylish; strong and exciting score
The Downside: Lots of running up and down hallways; maybe a bit too light-weight and unbelievable at times; resolution is under-whelming