Ensemble casts and high concept scripts seems to be all the rage these days in Korean cinema and An Ethics Lesson, billed as an erotic thriller, is the latest addition to this trend. But as wonderful as Korea's multi-genre concoctions have been in the past, these days, in an effort to push the enveloped ever further, there has arisen a disturbing trend of films which, through the application of an all but the kitchen sink approach, have become whitewashed and bland.
The 'high-concept' film is ubiquitous in Korean cinema and trailblazers that were not afraid of transgressing genre boundaries provided global film viewers with some of the world's most essential and refreshing films of the past 15 years. The nation's sterling cinematic reputation owes a lot to films like Save the Green Planet (2003) and The Host (2006). Yet for some reason, the same formula doesn't seem to do the trick anymore these days.
A young woman is killed in her apartment one night and subsequently all the men who revolved around her begin to clash. Her next-door neighbor stalker, the older professor she was having an affair with, a loan shark and an impetuous young lover, all have something to hide but who did the deed?
Though the word erotic has been used to sell An Ethics Lesson, the truth is that there is hardly anything sexual about it. The film wants to be a dark thriller that walks a morally ambiguous line but it's far too tame to come close to achieving this. Though it tries to be many things, such as a whodunit, a sexual thriller, a domestic drama, etc., it spreads itself out far too thin to make an impact. None of its tangents are well fleshed out and what we're left with is a haphazard product that treads all too familiar ground.
Before railing too strongly against the film I can say that the performances are for the most part very strong. Lee Je-hoon (Bleak Night), as the man who records his fair neighbor's activities, pulls off a part that sees him play someone both creepy and earnest. Cho Jin-woong (Nameless Gangster), one of the most physical and entertaining performers in Korean cinema today, is a hoot as the oily loan shark. The excellent Moon So-ri (Oasis) doesn't get much screen time but is commanding as the professor's fierce wife when she does. The only person hampering up the proceedings is the rather drab Kim Tae-hun (When Winter Screams) as the lover. He's a limited performer with a thin range of expressions.
The film gets off to a decent start as it hints at the morally ambiguous lifestyle led by the soon to be deceased young beauty. She takes part in a private, after-hours shoot and we then learn of her beaus, though this happens through her neighbor, whose whole apartment is a high tech recording studio devoted to her. It's a clever voyeuristic (or whatever the aural equivalent of that is) move that could potential implicate the viewer in what follows. Not to mention there are strong echoes of De Palma's classic thriller Blow Out (1981) on display. However, once she dies the film begins to go through the motions and what's worse, any pretense at being an effective procedural thriller is quickly brushed aside as the killer is revealed almost immediately.
Aside from some choice dialogue and a few strong scenes, what really lets this film down is its insipid story. The script tries to cobble together some intriguing elements but lets itself down by stringing them together very poorly. Perhaps aware of this, a late stage blood-filled, multi-character confrontation is inserted in an attempt to breathe some life into the proceedings but the damage is already done and, in addition to not making a lick of sense, it all comes off as rather silly.
Meanwhile, there are some interesting and carefully designed shots that creep down through pipes and below floors, connecting various sequences and flashbacks, but aside from these the production values are unremarkable. There's enough technical skill on display that the lack of consistency and dearth of imagination become irritating as they hint at a lack of effort.
I don't know who is to blame for this phenomenon, but rather than include everything they think spectators might like, filmmakers should begin to pay more attention to developing stronger stories. Playing to the masses is often a losing a game and An Ethics Lesson is proof of this. Debut filmmaker Park Myung-rang delivers some by the numbers thrills and muted intrigue in what amounts to a missed opportunity.