Fantasia 2019 Review: IDOL, An Opaque South Korean Crime Procedural That Will Overheat Your Brain
Let us get this out of the way first: In over 40 years of watching movies and more than 20 years writing about them, this South Korean neo-noir was perhaps the first film to ever to leave me reeling to assemble the basic narrative.
Not to mention the full motives and who the killer even was. I have my theories after thinking about this film for 48 hours. But the experience, whether this was director Lee Su-jin’s intention or not, in the theatre was exhilarating. Idol is a cognitive brain cooker. I spoke with fellow Korean film enthusiasts exiting the theatre, and they were as unable to explain what happened as I was.
This is not a function of the film being ineptly made, or even a case something lost in translation. This is a glossy, big budget film from a talented director, and a concise set of English subtitles. I welcome anyone going in to take the ‘Idol Challenge’ and see if you can grasp simply the basics on a single viewing.
There is no denying that the mysterious plot here is thick and complex, but I came out of the experience truly not knowing what way was up, and what way was done. It was like that minor character murdered in The Big Sleep, in that neither the screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, nor director Howard Hawks, nor even the author of the original novel, Raymond Chandler could figure out who was responsible.
Idol takes that one inconsequential moment in a classic Hollywood noir, and pushes it out to a 2 hour and 24 minute movie. If you are the type of person who constantly taps your partner on the shoulder and asks, ‘what just happened?’ you might want to avoid this film. I tell my children when watching movies with them, to never do this. The director wants the viewer to be off balance. The filmmaker will let you know when the moment is right in the movie. Idol is the exception that proves this rule.
“I jerked my son off. It was the best thing I ever did.” That is a hell of an opening line for any movie, but it is also a mission statement about South Korean politics, and possibly South Korean cinema. Lee Su-jin is no stranger to convoluted plotting and elliptical storytelling, as his previous film, the very well received Han Gong-ju (which also stared actress Chun Woo-hee) unfolded via flashbacks overlapping with the present to paint an emotionally fraught event in a woman’s past.
Idol begins straightforward enough. Upwardly mobile politician Koo Myung-hui comes home from a meeting of his political party, where he is to be elevated to electoral candidate, to find his wife dealing with a dead body in the garage. Apparently his slow-witted son borrowed his car while he was at the meeting, got drunk, and on the way home, struck the man with the vehicle.
Instead of taking him to the hospital or calling the police, the boy brought the body home in the trunk of the car for his mother to deal with. In a rather upstanding, and decidedly non-movie move, Koo tells the family that hiding this kind of crime will only have more serious consequences later, and that they will all be "slaves to it for the rest of their lives.” He goes to the police prepared to pay the political price for his son’s mistake. There is, of course, a media circus.
The father of the murder victim (a magnificent Sol Kyung-gu with a blonde dye-job) does not accept Koo’s narrative, because he catches the son smiling strangely during the confession. After a mix-up in the morgue -- this of course will be important later, so pay attention — to everything -- and dealing with an emotionally distraught wife, he begins to investigate the train of events himself.
Koo, forced to abandon his political ambitions, and resign his cushy job as administrator of a nuclear power plant, wants to know the truth as well. The two investigations happen in parallel. Clues pile up that point to a brothel along the old coastal road where the hit and run happened. There is a $20,000 bribe on the table at one point, I am not sure from whom, or if anyone even pays it. I think someone might. The brothel has been functioning as an entry point for illegal immigrants from China. A prostitute (Chun Woo-hee) knows something. She is pregnant. There is a marriage certificate, and customs papers to legitimize her sneaking into the country. She was to marry the victim.
Shot and edited with grace, always feeding you more information, and never locking all the pieces together, Idol is indeed a marvel for ‘jerking off’ the dedicated procedural enthusiasts in the audience. Curiously, the themes that Lee is tackling here are best laid out in another line of dialogue: "This country is run on influence, by family, by school or by religion."
Wealth and Influence are the purview of the wealthy and the influential, and upward mobility is a lie. The high profile scandal opens up the sins of others, and puts them on the spotlight. There are paths forward for the rich, but not the poor.
Many wonderful movie moments are on display here, making the journey more significant than the destination. Koo’s mother is a Maggie Smith-level ice queen who casts loaded, disparaging remarks upon many of the key players here. The provocative opening line, given at a political rally no less, opens up another avenue of inquiry to the chain of events.
All of this seem tangential to the actual plot, but perhaps not. Maybe there is an explanation for why this man is murdered. There certainly are motives for hiding things. I feel Idol can play on bar with the best of South Korean murder procedurals, Memories of Murder, Mother, and The Wailing (which curiously, also stars Chun Woo-hee). What if filmography were a clue?
Nevertheless, the film includes a standard, American blockbuster-style ending, featuring a large explosion and a big speech. Curiously there were no subtitles on this. That is the REAL mystery! It solves nothing.
I look forward to seeing this one a second time. Will it overheat my logic circuits and fry my cerebrum only to prove elusive again? I think it might still escape a full explanation. Maybe that is the true definition of Truth. Either way, if you are a crime thriller junkie, I really do dare you to take the challenge. That is, if you can find Idol playing at a theatre near you.