In an era of oversaturation at the cineplex, with countless retreads and follow-ups dominating the marquees, sometimes a gimmick is just the trick to freshen things up. A clever and well-executed hook can seem fresh and original, but if poorly done, it can easily torpedo a film. In the case of new Korean action-thriller The Terror Live, a chamber piece that takes place entirely in a radio recording studio, the gimmick in the premise is both its saving grave and its downfall.
Radio show host Yoon Young-hwa receives a guest call while on air from a man claiming to have a bomb. When flippantly dismissed by the host, the caller blows up a bridge next door. Now Young-hwa, who was previously a primetime TV news anchor, sees a chance to get back on top. He calls his old producer, gets his new one fired and soon his radio room has been converted into a mini TV studio. The terrorist calls back and Young-hwa finds himself juggling his demands, the lives of hostages and his producer's drive for top ratings.
Shooting an entire film in a single location is nothing new. In fact, given the natural fit of theater and film, these projects come along quite often - though they are normally dialogue-driven character pieces. But throw in another element and suddenly you have something original. Hitchcock was the master of this trick. His film Rope (1947) took place in an apartment and was designed to seem as though it was all shot in a single take. Later, in the 1960s, he almost made a film with writer Larry Cohen that would have seen a man trapped inside a phone booth for the length of a feature. This later became Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth (2002), perhaps the clearest comparison point for The Terror Live.
Quickly paced and with a solid turn from charismatic Korean superstar Ha Jung-woo, the film gets off to a good start, milking its claustrophobic premise by throwing in a few good surprises. Following the halfway point however, the gimmick starts to lose its appeal and steadily becomes a contrivance, bogging down the final reel with staged set pieces that are dictated by the film's narrative and geographical limitations.
Thankfully the film is far more than a one-trick pony as it sports a strong social backbone that takes aim at hierarchy and the harsh work environment familiar to so many Koreans. The ruthlessness of the producer, who is content to do anything if it means more ratings, may seem cartoonish to a foreign audience but it's not so far removed from reality. Cronyism, which stems from the same mentality that leads to the harsh working conditions in the film, also rears its head early on. While valuable social commentary, its entrenched nature makes it hard to sympathize with anyone in the film. The characters that should resolve this issue are the hostages on the bridge but they are merely faceless pawns, save for Young-hwa's barely visible ex-wife news reporter.
Ha Jung-woo (The Yellow Sea, The Berlin File) is a big name in Korea, arguably at the top of the pile of male stars with box office appeal, along with Lee Byung-hun and Kim Yun-seok. His good (but not pretty boy) looks and his energy are put to good use in The Terror Live, during which he is almost never absent from the screen. Smarmy, calculating and charming, he is an electrifying screen presence as always and though omnipresent throughout, he acquits himself well. Other performers barely get a look in but Lee Kyoung-young, as the heartless ladder-climbing producer, delivers the goods again in a role that recalls his terrifying torturer from Chung Ji-young's National Security.
Following 2007's Written, Kim Byung-woo delivers a taut if unremarkable thriller that zips around and changes its location's appearance enough for us not to tire of it, but consequently feels a bit drab on the cinematography front. The handheld camerawork raises the tension, but the sheer number of inventive shots used to keep things from getting repetitive result in a number of awkward angles.
A strong first hour delivers on the promise of its premise but when The Terror Live loses its footing in the back half as it runs out of clever ideas, it exposes itself as a gimmick lacking a strong punch line. Still, at 98 minutes, this latest Korean summer flick breezes thanks to zippy editing and Ha's natural screen presence.