Review: Bystanders (2005)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

There must be something in the air in Korea that enables them to churn out so many tight cop thrillers. Whatever it is, they’ve got plenty of it, and they’re clearly making good use. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve got so much rain, and know how dramatic well-photographed rain can look.

Bystanders leaps right into it during the opening credits, introducing the plot (a serial killer stalking schoolchildren) and the two cops, Ja-young (Shin) and her junior Dong-wook (Mun). Dong-wook is the sort of uncomplicated young cop with a pretty face and an ability to give the miscreants a good kicking, while Ja-young is a senior cop with a bad attitude and the dress sense of a bag lady.

And right up front, Shin makes it clear that her character is not just any old cop on a mission. Her very first scene, involving the apprehension of a salaryman feeling up a young girl on the train, marks her out as someone who may be admirable from a distance, but is way too spiky up close. The last thing I saw Shin in was My Wife Is A Gangster, a reasonably amusing gangster comedy, in which she played the eponymous wife. Here, she’s in full flower, as a feisty, foul-mouthed, intensely physical cop with a grudge against the whole world. There’s a minor running joke throughout the film in which various characters accuse her of being pre-menstrual, perhaps because the demeanour that was so suitable for Park Joong-hoon in Nowhere To Hide is less acceptable in a woman.

And in fact this film tackles a whole lot of societal issues along the way, including sexism, bullying, youth suicide, and dysfunctional families. But it does this simply by using those features as part of a tight plotline, without any preaching, so the social commentary is not at all odious. Ja-young’s relationship with her nephew Jin-ha is a case in point. Having unofficially adopted the orphaned boy, she alternates between handcuffing him, trying to feed him wholesome food, and shouting at him. Their scenes are uncomfortable reminders that sometimes it’s no-one’s fault, even though everyone’s unhappy.

While extremely watchable, the film is not without flaws. Several scenes are unconvincing either in terms of the characters or in terms of police process, but the tight plotline manages to carry the story regardless. And the epilogue is a little too long and serves no real plot purpose. It does, however, allow the delicately beautiful Kim Yoon-jin to demonstrate her talent for extreme emotion. Kim, whose previous films have included Shiri and Ardour, is no stranger to strong emotions, but this scene is easily one of the most wrenchingly uncomfortable I’ve seen. She captures the shuddering repugnance of forcing herself to watch something truly horrifying, and conveys it masterfully, particularly given the difficult nature of acting straight to camera.

8 cheerful yellow plastic raincoats out of 10.
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