[Guest Film Review] "Black House"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
The film is based on the homonymous Japanese novel and had already been adapted into a Japanese movie in 1999. However, the film was not as successful as the producers expected, and this led to this particular edition, a Japanese-Korean co-production.
Jeon Joon-oh is an insurance investigator who has just been hired by the company, after leaving his former position as a bank employee. During his first day at work, he receives a phone call from someone asking if he could get the insurance money, if the insured committed suicide. The phone call stays in Jeon's mind, since he is still tormented by his younger brother's suicide when they were kids. A few days later, Nam, his section chief sends him to a village to meet a potential client, Park Choong-bae, who insisted on talking only to him. Upon his arrival at the rundown estate, Jeon starts to feel that something is wrong. His intuition is revealed to be correct when, upon Park's insisting, he goes to his 7-year-old son's room, only to find the kid hanging from the ceiling, with the father saying that it was a suicide. Jeon believes that the whole episode was Park's sham, and starts investigating his case. Park, however, keeps appearing in the insurance firm everyday asking for money. Furthermore, when he realizes that Jeon is investigating him, he starts stalking him, and the case takes a very dangerous turn. As Jeon learns about psychopaths and their lack of sentiment, another piece of the puzzle makes its appearance, in the face of Sin I-hwa, Park's wife, turning everything around.
Shin Terra directs a film radically split in two parts. The first part moves as a crime thriller, with the events and the actual case revealed gradually, in a somewhat noir fashion. Shin's direction is impressive in this part, with him building the terror gradually, until Jeon realizes what is actually happening, after an hour in the film. This part's aesthetics are very close to those of Japanese films of the genre, with the slow pace, the lack of any kind of outbursts and the attention to detail. After that point, however, the movie becomes a bloody action thriller, in the style of the plethora of similar Korean films. In that fashion, the pace becomes frantic, the crucial events follow one another, and the script loses its cohesion, with the final sequence being the most distinct sample of this tendency. Somewhere between the two phases, the film becomes of a psychological thriller, as Park tries to persuade the insurance company to pay him by stalking Jeon and his family. This, however, lasts for a very brief period.
The film also presents a rather ambiguous message, since the insurance company seems to use some extreme, to the point of illegal, methods to avoid paying its policies, but, on the other hand, it has to face individuals who are cunning and always eager to con their way into their insurance money. If I had to pick one, I would say that the insurance company is portrayed as the true victim here, in the face of both Jeon and his supervisor.
Hwang Jung-min anchors the film with a great performance, throughout its duration. His transformation from a sure-for-himself, competent man, to a broken down, desperate individual is his performance's highlight. Kang Shin-il is also impressive in the role of an almost catatonic man, who manages, however, to emit danger from every pore. Yoo Sun plays Sin I-hwa in accordance to the change in genres we described before, and ends up somewhat hyperbolic.
Choi Joo-yeong's cinematography is competent, both in the urban and corporate setting, and in the rural one, without any highlights, though. Nam Na-yeong's editing follows the change in style with precision and the same applies to Choi Seung-hyun's music, that changes style according to each scene.
"Black House" has its moments, but the excessiveness in the script and the aesthetics of the second part that try to shock through the depiction of occasionally misplaced violence, deprive the film of becoming a masterful psychological, crime thriller.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
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Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.