Single location thrillers can be tough on filmmakers and audiences alike, but things get a little easier the bigger you make that single location. A coffin (Buried), a car trunk (Brake) and a remote banking stand (ATM) pose all kinds of troubles, but what if the location was a radio station studio in a highrise building with a view?
Yoon Young-hwa (Ha Jung-woo) was a high profile TV news anchor before being demoted to radio talk show host after some embarrassing and potentially dirty dealings. In the middle of his latest show discussing the pros and cons of federal taxes a disgruntled caller threatens to blow up a downtown bridge. Thinking the man is little more than a radio troll Yoon encourages the act before moving on to the next caller. An explosion outside the office’s windows reveals a smoking bridge near collapse, but instead of bringing in the authorities Yoon moves fast to secure a deal to return him to a network anchor chair knowing the man will be calling again. He’s less sure of his plan once he discovers there’s a bomb in his earpiece too.
What follows is an often tense but occasionally inane back and forth as Yoon tries to milk the situation for personal gain. The Terror Live moves forward mostly in real time, and it finds an interesting and suspenseful footing early. By the time it hits the third act though all pretense of real world logic or consequence has gone out the window, along with at least one character, leaving a thriller that grows less and less thrilling as it counts down to the end. That’s kind of the opposite of what should happen right?
Co-writer/director Kim Byeong-woo does some good work early on in setting up characters, but the real time aspect limits what he can accomplish in this area. We get a fairly firm grasp on Yoon’s personality and discover quickly that he’s more than ready to throw his staff under a bus on his way back up the ladder, but some of the peripheral touches don’t come across as well. He’s divorced, and his ex is a reporter who, as luck would have it, is trapped on the precariously damaged bridge. The bomber threatens another explosion if a rescue attempt is made before his singular demand is met, so she and a couple dozen others become pawns. But while her presence should be an emotional point for Yoon and the viewers, and in fact it’s played as one later on, we never feel its weight. The script never allows enough time to build their connection aside from their marital status.
Ha, best known for his intense turns in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, does good work in revealing Yoon’s motivations through his performance instead of solely through dialogue, and his arc is clearer because of it. The film stays on him almost exclusively straying only to offer glimpses through windows or to TV screens, and he carries the responsibility with energy and believability. At least until the train wreck that is the final thirty minutes or so.
This is essentially Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth on a larger, more serious, Kiefer-less scale, but while that film gets tighter as it moves on this one falls apart. The story turns on media cynicism and government corruption, but it’s taken to such a ridiculous extreme as to completely deflate any drama and suspense that the first hour has built. The focus becomes action, special effects and a reveal inexplicably drawn out well past the point where the audience has figured things out, and very little of it benefits the film in any way. The character element regarding Yoon’s moralistic lapses leading to his involvement falls victim here as well.
That third act is a real shame as the first hour of The Terror Live offers a strong setup and a handful of small surprises along the way. While the end remains visually interesting it pales beside the tension and interest generated earlier. It’s possible the media and government in South Korea are this openly ridiculous, but I find that harder to believe than the sad fact that 2002′s Phone Booth was Schumacher’s last good to great movie.
The Upside: Good performance from Ha Jung-woo; initial setup is interesting; tension through second act
The Downside: Third act drops the ball completely by becoming absolutely ridiculous
On the Side: The film began production at the end of January and premiered six months later on August 1st.
The Terror Live is currently playing in limited theatrical release.