A slow year for Korean thrillers gets a late shot in the arm with Doorlock, director Lee Kwon's tense remake of Jaume Balagueró's Spanish film Sleep Tight. Completely reworking the original narrative, actress Kong Hyo-jin anchors a story rooted in urban fears that maintains tension throughout, and has plenty to say about the consequences of being a woman in a male-dominated society.
Kyung-min works as a bank cashier and lives alone in a small studio apartment in Seoul, but has grown increasingly convinced that an intruder has been inside her home. As she goes about her daily life, she begins to perceive potential threats from the various men around her, including an angry young bank patron, her manager at work, and the man on the front desk of her apartment building. Even after she gets help from co-worker Hyo-joo and Detective Lee, events unfolding around her become increasingly harder to explain.
Following his thoroughly engaging horror-romcom My Ordinary Love Story, which closed the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in 2014 but was sadly ignored by audiences and critics at the time, director Lee delivers another strong genre showcase that takes tried-and-tested elements and gives them a local spin. With a dark narrative, compelling themes and tight construction, Doorlock proves highly effective as both a pulse-raising mystery and an examination of the fears experienced by women in modern Korean society.
Dark lighting and claustrophobic interiors dominate the mise-en-scene, as Doorlock forces its characters to paw through the shadows, fearing an unknown danger that may be mere inches away. Beyond the precise lensing by Park Jung-hoon, responsible for last year's The Villainess, the unsettling score by Dalpalan further cranks up the tension in a story that plays out through a lean 100 minute running time.
At the heart of this tale of paranoia is Kong Hyo-jin, a huge celebrity who has had limited success with her film work, despite her strong eye for projects such as 2016's Missing and last year's A Single Rider. As Kyung-min, Kong is effortlessly relatable as she tones down her natural charisma to play a character struggling to blend in with the world around her, careful not to be noticed for the wrong reasons. Kong doubles down on Kyung-min's natural reticence when events around her send her nerves into overdrive. Then, as the realization dawns on her that there may be no one around her to help, Kong shifts her performance again, as Kyung-min begins to take matters into her own hands.
It's difficult to discuss how Sleep Tight and Doorlock differ without giving the game away, but aside from the core intruder concept, this Korean reimagining goes in a completely new direction. Lee's film places a different character at its center, and while the fear and discomfort of the original conceit are still present, they are in aid of a different set of thematic concerns. Beyond Sleep Tight, Lee also draws inspiration from several key local influences, namely Huh Jung's Hide and Seek and Na Hong-jin's The Chaser. In particular, a memorable moment from Huh's film featuring the playback of a hidden recording device is replayed here to considerable effect. Meanwhile, as Kyung-min gets closer to the truth, she finds herself in places and situations that call to mind the villain's lair in Na's modern classic.
The net result is a film that is markedly different from its progenitor and stays tightly wound until a strong finale. With only a handful of releases still left on the calendar, it seems safe to say that Doorlock is probably the year's best Korean thriller.