I originally saw Bang Eun-jin's sophomore film Perfect Number at the Busan International Film Festival last October. I am a big fan of the Japanese book (The Devotion of Suspect X by Higashino Keigo) that it was based on and as I felt that the story would be a great fit for Korean cinema my expectations were very high. Too high it seems as I found myself a little disappointed by a film delivering something I wasn't expecting.
A reclusive math teacher is smitten with his next-door neighbor who lives with her niece. One day her ex-husband comes to visit and a violent altercation ends with his lifeless corpse hitting the ground. The teacher has heard what transpired and knocks on their door. Quiet, composed and intelligent, he offers to help his distressed neighbors.
Director Bang, a former actress, is a natural talent behind the camera. I enjoyed her debut film Princess Aurora, a dark thriller that starred Uhm Jeong-hwa as a woman out to exact brutal revenge. If the premise sounds a little rote, I won't try to convince you otherwise, but the execution of that 2005 mid-sized commercial feature elevated it a head's length above most.
Her carefully measured, atmospheric and evocative film style is once again the focus here. Perfect Number is a ravishing piece of work full of earthy tones, rich compositions, soft lights and dark shadows. The shallow depth of field utilized throughout as well as the careful positioning of the protagonists on screen complement the feature's focus on characters. In other words, it's style with substance.
In the lead role, Ryoo Seung-beom shows a different side of himself. Typically cast as larger-than-life characters, Ryoo has carved an identity through a series of dynamic performances. Though also an oddball, the professor in Perfect Number is a 180-degree turn for him. Silent, meek and perpetually withdrawn, Ryoo has tapped into a previously unseen pool of subtlety for his performance. It's one of his very best roles yet he doesn't always hit the mark. At times his movements and facial ticks are a little too measured, but these moments do little to mar a great turn.
Less impressive was Lee Yo-won as the fragile female lead. There's nothing particularly amiss in her performance, it's just a little flat. Admittedly, this is a limitation carried over from the story. As the detective in charge of the case, Cho Jin-woong is brash and confident. A large, charismatic presence, Cho is in top form, demonstrating why his face has become such a common in recent Korean films.
Adapting a well-liked book is never easy and sometimes the decision is made to go in a different direction. Such is the case with Perfect Number. The Devotion of Suspect X was a remarkably matter-of-fact Japanese crime thriller that featured extraordinary procedural elements. It constantly built tension though its tight plotting and cunning narrative machinations and it's lack of emotion was not a hindrance as it set the stage for a surprisingly cathartic conclusion. For this Korean remake, the filmmakers opted to downplay the procedural elements and amp up the melodrama. The book has been transformed into a very different beast here, as it now fits into a genre that some have referred to as the romantic thriller.
Bang's Perfect Number is a Korean film through and through but some of the changes and additions made to achieve this sacrificed what made the book so great in the first place. The book features a detective but also a college professor who assists the police and turns out to be an old acquaintance of the math teacher, here both characters have been refigured as one protagonist. Other changes include the increased romantic focus and the addition of an illness for the daughter.
What we're left with is a highly stylized melodramatic thriller that feels both original and very familiar. It's impressive, for its lush visuals and intense focalization on character, but also disappointing for its melodramatic manipulation. Though a handsome picture, Perfect Number feels a little hollow, especially in its climax, which has been robbed of its quiet power by pandering too much to local audiences with overt sentimentality.