Directed by Kwon Oh-Seung.
Starring Jin Ki-Joo, Wi Ha-Joon, Park Hoon, Kim Hye-Yoon, Gil Hae-yeon.
South Korea 2021 103 mins. Certificate: 15

Released by Eureka on Blu-ray on 14th March, 2022


In the assured hands of feature debut writer-director Kwon Oh-Seung, the generically titled MIDNIGHT is far more than the sum of its parts. Handicapped women in peril have been a staple of cinematic thrillers for almost as long as cinema itself, from the film noir-infused shadowy menace of Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) to the young Jennifer Jason Leigh’s blind / deaf-mute protagonist in slasher-era shocker EYES OF A STRANGER (1981). The set-up here appears entirely routine: sweet, deaf call centre worker Kim Kyung-Mi (Jin Ki-joo) endures an evening of terror courtesy of manipulative, sadistic serial killer Do-Sik (Wi Ha-joon, best known as Hwang in Netflix’s THE SQUID GAME). The execution, however, is transformative: Oh-Seung’s taut direction, Cha Taek-gyun’s sleek cinematography and Hwang Sang-jun’s relentless score combine to make for a nerve-wracking experience.


The prologue offers a glimpse of the Do-Sik’s brutal rampage: abducting a young woman who misses her city taxi and then dialling 911 so he can blame three “foreign workers” for her murder. Our introduction to the appealing Kim, in her role as sign language counsellor, shows her routinely insulted during consultations with clients and patronised / leched over by male co-workers (“She can’t hear anyway”). Oh-Seung offers a highly empathetic depiction of her plight even before she is terrorised by Do-Sik, but also captures her spirit and character – including the darkly inventive ways she finds to mock her colleagues using the language they’re too ignorant to understand. Kim is unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, running into one of Do-Sik’s female victims (Kim Hye-yoon), begging her for help while her security officer older brother (Park Hoon) frantically tries to locate her.


What follows is a gripping exercise in sustained suspense as our plucky heroine overcomes communication barriers to stay alive while outwitting the fast-moving, cruelly laughing, axe-wielding killer. The two leads engaged in this extended cat-and-mouse battle are superb, though there are poignant, authentic supporting performances too – notably Gil Hae-yeon as Kim’s mother. The tension escalates during a long, frustrating police station sequence that captures the protagonist’s general plight in society while the scenario threatens to spill over into violence at any point.


MIDNIGHT wrongfoots the audience with misdirection and false “rescues” while canny framing and disorientating sound design (note the pivotal use of an alarm clock) conspire to create a consistently unpredictable experience – and a suitably alienating portrait of a modern city. We’ve seen excellent South Korean serial killers before, and the sub-genre was played out and hackneyed in American cinema long before second-rate Thomas Harris knock-offs like THE BONE COLLECTOR emerged, but this somehow makes the subject matter fresh and surprising – while also understanding the impact of discretion when it comes to onscreen brutality. There’s barely any graphic violence in MIDNIGHT, but every physical or psychological blow to Kim hurts more than a literal axe to the face in any number of other bodycount movies.


Eureka’s release of this 2021 international festival hit has handsome, menacing Gregory Sacre artwork on its O card slipcase, a typically engaging audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, a perceptive walk through of Korean horror by Travis Crawford and a booklet featuring the ever-absorbing work of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.


Steven West.


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