The Terror, Live is a nail-biter of a thriller that screened in South Korea about a year ago, managing five million domestic tickets sold — a pretty decent showing given that it opened against Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (which set domestic opening records, and eventually ended up at 9.3M admissions). Terror is a very different film, though: recalling Hollywood “maniac on a phone” films of yesteryear (think Phone Booth, or perhaps even Speed), it sets almost the entire film in one room and generates its suspense by trapping its lead character in a twisting web of media greed and power politics.
Top Korean star Ha Jung-woo (who played the serial killer in The Chaser and the downtrodden taxi driver in The Yellow Sea, among others — he’s been very busy over the last few years) plays talkback radio host Yoon Young-hwa. Yoon has had better days, it seems: once a respected prime-time newsreader, he’s been reduced to working in radio, wearily taking calls from listeners who want to complain about tax reform.
One such listener, however, seems difficult to hang up on, and when Yoon presses him on what he actually wants to say, he explains that he has a bomb and that he’ll blow up a bridge if he doesn’t get what he wants. Jaded and cynical off air, Yoon snaps at him, telling the caller to stop prank calling the station and to do his worst. A dull thud behind the studio sounds, and Yoon turns to see the Mapo Bridge in central Seoul, visible from his window, explode in flames.
That’s where it all begins. Yoon, ever the newsman and seeing a way out of his radio existence, knows he’s got the mother of all exclusive interviews still on the line. He negotiates with the station’s TV producers to put him back on the box, covering the terrorist’s explanation live. The TV guys see an opportunity for sky-high ratings. The police want to catch the perpetrator, or at least look like they’re strong on terror. And the country’s elected officials want to gauge the public’s reaction, and do anything that will place them in the best position politically.
One device used to sell the story is that the rest of the film after the opening — about ninety minutes — is live, apparently unfolding in real time for the audience. That’s not to say it’s like theatre, or even shot in one take: in fact, the film bursts with cinematic artifice, relying on hand-held shooting and some very rapid editing to heighten the sense of time ticking away as Yoon struggles with what to do next. Some of the camerawork is reminiscent of the twitchy wide-angle handheld style used in some recent Hollywood action films, but in Terror it’s used in a very confined way, limited as it is to such a small location.
Ha’s performance in the lead is critical, given the narrow focus on him as a character and the amped-up documentary style of the cinematography. It’s a good showing: Ha gives his driven newsman-brought-low quite a bit of depth, and his very human reactions to each new twist make it easy for the audience to get inside his head. Veteran actor Lee Geung-young shows up as an unscrupulous, controlling TV producer, and there are a number of other small supporting roles, but for most of the film it’s all Ha Jung-woo.
Much as Deni wrote about this year’s The Suspect (also showing at KOFFIA 2014), there’s a certain level of suspension of disbelief required to take on board the chain of events that drive the film, particularly as it hurtles towards its final scenes. If you’re willing to handle a bit of absurdity, though, The Terror, Live is a solid modern thriller, and a good deal of fun to boot. I enjoyed it immensely.
The Terror, Live is screening around Australia as part of KOFFIA 2014. See their site for ticket and schedule info!