Director Lee Soo-yeon's latest film stars Cho Jin-woong as someone who isn't quite what he seems.
Much like her debut The Uninvited, Lee Soo-yeon's latest film Bluebeard teases a dark genre storyline before turning off into more psychological territory through several layered images and a protagonist who isn't quite what he seems, played by Cho Jin-woong of A Hard Day. Unlike her impressive 2003 horror film, her second work feels less fresh and a lot more contrived.
Seung-hoon is a doctor whose failed Seoul practice has forced him to move to a small town on the outskirts of the city, where he now lives in a cramped apartment above a butcher shop. Recently divorced, Seung-hoon only gets to see his son once every two weeks. He begins to work at a clinic in town and one day, while performing a colonoscopy, an elderly patient talks in his sleep, and seems to implicate himself in a gruesome murder. This man is none other than the butcher living beneath him and Seung-hoon, an avid reader of crime novels, keeps an eye open for clues.
Bluebeard kicks off with the ominous discovery of a torso in the Han River bisecting Seoul, which only floats to the surface in early spring once the ice has melted. The way this death is uncovered serves as a clue for what's to come, as buried secrets have a tendency to rise to the surface in this sober slowburn of a thriller, part amateur investigation, part psychological drama.
The opening teases something gruesome and when Seung-hoon suspects his neighbor, and his son, his thoughts quickly turn to cannibalism as he imagines all the tools in the butcher shop and how they could be used. Yet those looking for gore or scares may be disappointed as director Lee is not interested in graphic dissections of the human form. She teases certain events but rarely allows us to see anything, such as the recurring image of a laden black plastic bag which the protagonist believes is filled with a human head.
Of course, part of the problem is the reason why we don't see any gore, which is because Lee is trying to build tension as to what really happened or what the true motives of her characters are. That said, while the groundwork is laid for a tense and deliberate chiller, the end result doesn't quite work in that regard. This is partly because we know what to expect from these narratives, but also because the mise-en-scene, though polished, fails to build much suspense, and the pacing is too drawn out to successfully maintain both tension and interest.
In the lead, Cho comes off as an affable sort, pleasant to those around him though beaten down by the various failures in his life that have brought him to his current point. His lumbers around quietly and awkwardly and even seems a little bored, yet when the possibility of a crime in his vicinity comes up, he becomes more focused and Cho begins to shuffle around the layers of his character, revealing new sides that gradually explain his earlier aloofness.
Though Bluebeard is ultimately a frustrating experience that never builds any really energy, it's another ambitious effort from Lee that seeks to explore a variety of psychological issues brought about by contemporary society, concerning pressures of social elevation and the drive to succeed at the cost of morality.