A serial killer thriller, Midnight poses the premise “What if A Quiet Place, but the stalking monster was a man?” The two movies are quite different in setting and plot, but tonally very similar and hinge on the actions of a character with no sense of hearing trying to survive and save others from a scary and relentless threat.
Protagonist Kim Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) is deaf and can only speak with great difficulty. We’re quickly encouraged to like this good-natured, cheeky character through a brief glimpse of her everyday life at work and her relationship with her mother (Kil Hae-yeon). These scenes also lay the ground work of the thriller setup, as they demonstrate some of the challenges and occasional advantages that Kyung-mi experiences being hearing impaired. Communication with others and awareness of surroundings can be a struggle, but being able to lip read and converse in sign language can be handy sometimes too. These same cons and pros are magnified when the stakes are raised to life and death proportions. A serial killer hunts the city at night, and when Kyung-mi happens across one of his victims she unwittingly becomes his next target.
The killer Do-sik (Wi Ha-joon) is a terrifying character. As expected for a movie serial killer he is cold and calculating and the way he manipulates situations to thwart Kyung-mi and her mother wherever possible is chilling. The early part of the film where the two women are unaware of the killer’s identity will have audience bottoms teetering on the last millimetre of seat edges. Already having trouble convincing the authorities she saw a murder victim, Kyung-mi is being constantly gaslit and undermined by Do-sik, as he attempts to manoeuvre her into a situation where she is vulnerable. The way he reads between the lines and calmly approaches each obstacle to isolating Kyung-mi further makes the skin crawl. Kyung-mi’s mother begins to have her suspicions, but the two women can’t always converse freely.
Who knows what information, when, and how they use it to influence the situation, is masterfully tense, and the way this information is conveyed to the audience makes this section of Midnight shine. We understand most, although not all, of the situation, and witnessing the characters realise and respond as they become aware of each piece of the bigger picture provides that heady mixture of hope and dread on which thrillers thrive.
It helps that the presentation is on point. Horror/thriller camera angles like close ups and shots where the frame is partly obscured, are used to alternately spring surprise or relief and sometimes just to tighten the suspense. Flickering lights get a look in and there’s — thankfully only slight — handheld shaky cam to keep the mood off balance. When people take off running the pace gets a boost, and while there’s a lot of racing through streets and alleyways it’s not disorienting. The proximity of predator to prey needs to be clear for the tension to stay high.
There’s a running theme of the social isolation disability can cause throughout Midnight. They have friends and most importantly each other, but Kyung-mi and her mother live in a semi-abandoned area of the city, so navigating it at night feels like being in a ghost town, adding to the unease that they have few avenues to turn to for help. Even when they do make contact with people, because they are strangers the two women are often misunderstood and their concerns brushed aside all too easily. The difficulty they have communicating and their increasing desperation in trying to do so makes people exasperated and uncomfortable. This tendency is exploited by Do-Sik, who is able to talk his way out of trouble because of his apparent normality. Like a bully whose worst tendencies are brought out by the disadvantage of his victims, he even toys with Kyung-mi’s hearing impairment at times.
Such behaviour evokes the many ways horrible men intimidate and disempower women, an undercurrent throughout the film that adds to the unease. Presumably Do-sik is equally cruel to all his victims and we see in the prologue one of them is male, but the fact it’s women who are targeted in the main storyline means the thought is bound to break the surface for anyone paying attention. The dual trial of being disabled and a woman under attack sometimes merges together. A stream of harassing text messages is even more invasive when it’s one of your main methods of communication.
In a movie with main characters who can not hear, audience awareness will naturally be drawn to sound effects and music. Midnight has put a lot of work into this area as well. A subtle aural ambiance permeates the film. The soft creaking of crickets, distant traffic drone, and even just low key room tone make the environment feel quiet but well rounded. Loud sounds can startle, however this technique is used sparingly since most of the time it would only shock the audience and not the characters, plus a lot of mileage is gained by using sounds of normal volume that we can hear, but Kyung-mi can not.
The music pairs with the sound as a complete package. It’s largely in an ambient style rather than any clear melodies or themes, allowing the score to easily rise and fall where needed without dominating the importance of the sound effects. Occasionally all sound will cut out to emphasise the experience of the deaf characters, as when Kyung-mi is almost hit by a car when she bursts out of an alley.
With all this excellent work, Midnight is an impressive debut feature for writer/director Kwon Oh-seung, and close to being an all-timer. The contained thriller setup is carried off well, but stretches credibility in the final act when the scope widens and a leaning towards melodrama also asserts itself in a way that doesn’t mesh with the preceding thrill ride, loosening some of the tightly wound tension. There’s also a few times when a character choice seems illogical, which are hard to avoid for films like this in order to work. However, most importantly, the climax is strong. The lengths to which Kyung-mi is driven to survive are a startling capper on her struggle to be heard throughout the film, while at the same time turning the disadvantages used against her all night in her favour. Action speaks louder than words this time for sure.