Deaf women flee a smooth-talking serial killer in Kwon Oh-seung’s suspenseful debut feature
Returning home from a humiliating night out with coworkers, Deaf customer service agent Kyung-Mi (Jin Ki-Joo) stumbles upon a bloody, assaulted woman in a darkened alley. Making out her cries for help, Kyung-Mi searches for aid nearby–only to run into the woman’s attempted murderer, Do-Sik (Squid Game’s Wi Ha-Jun). Midnight follows Kyung-Mi and Do-Sik’s cat and mouse chase across the city, where she must narrowly stay out of danger while unable to accurately track her stalker’s movements, and others are unable to adequately communicate with Kyung-Mi to grasp the life-or-death peril she faces.
While its dramatic turns range from the pulse-pounding to the convoluted, Midnight is an effective popcorn thriller that never sacrifices the agency of its Deaf protagonists for empathy or cheap shocks. Rather, Kwon Oh-seung’s debut feature casts a keen eye on the half-hearted accommodations Hearing society bestows upon Deaf and differently-abled communities, using its A-lister serial killer as an effective metaphor for how discrimination can be as easy to get away with as murder as long as you can blend in with society.
In a moviegoing landscape where Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing representation has reached a pop culture high point with CODA, Sound of Metal, and A Quiet Place, it’s exciting to see the possibilities of Deaf film further manifest in the genre space. As mixed as its overall messaging was, Sound of Metal innovatively utilized its sound design to immerse audiences in the silent world of its lead. With Midnight, this same tension between silence and noise is an effective tool for suspense.
Director Kwon places the audience within the sonic world of Kyung-Mi and her mother (Kil Hae-Yeon) early on to ground us in the hurdles both characters face in their daily lives: workplace gossip, isolation from social events, and a lack of integrated accessibility in general. Kyung-Mi’s position as a VC Customer Service Agent shows incremental signs of progress as increased communication options in turn open new avenues of communication. Much like Deaf communities in the United States, however, Kyung-Mi and her mother are still forced to rely on reading lips and using smartphones to write out Hangul in order to communicate.
When the film pivots into its chase thriller sequences, Midnight alternates between ripping the audio from the film to mirror Kyung-Mi’s perspective and heightening her sounds in naturally silent sequences. When Deafness is placed in this genre spotlight, it’s an easy trope to reach for–but rather than feel patronizing by quickly exploiting what audiences would see as its characters’ biggest weaknesses, it’s almost as if Director Kwon is ripping off a bandaid of expectations in order to directly engage with Deafness in other ways in the thriller space. In the film’s second half, Wi’s serial killer descends upon Kyung-Mi’s home, which is itself outfitted with all sorts of ways Deaf people keep track of Hearing-oriented tasks–directional, sound-activated lighting, volume and vibration monitors, and more. It’s one of many moments throughout Midnight where Deafness can be seen as an advantage over Hearing, and it’s a dynamic that Kwon continuously engages with throughout the film–allowing our expectations to be as toyed with, akin to how Do-Sik plays with his victims.
There’s a real dedication to the performances throughout Midnight–notably by actresses Jin Ki-Joo and Kil Hae-Yeon. First and foremost–these aren’t Deaf actors, and by all rights, the film could benefit by casting the actors it represents with its characters. With this aside, however, both Jin and Kil turn in gripping performances, with a dedicated commitment to KSL that wholly complements their naturalistic acting styles. Jin vents all-too-universal frustrations of accessibility and isolation with her performance, while also working in sly, satisfying moments of sarcasm and revenge that make Kyung-Mi such a great character to root for.
The film’s most subversive performance, however, belongs to Wi Ha-Jun as serial killer Do-Sik, whose idol yet meek looks hide Patrick Bateman-levels of depravity. A master of manipulation, Do-Sik is able to turn Kyung-Mi and her mother’s lives into living hells no matter how close they get to safety, adopting the role of a benevolent, concerned passerby or equally-terrorized victim whenever benefits him most. In the film’s most pointed and frustrating sequence, set in a police station, he weaponizes his victims’ Deafness by interfering with their ability to communicate however possible–whether it’s concealing evidence or brandishing weapons out of sight of law enforcement, or literally sitting on his victims’ hands. The interference of a musclebound fellow searcher, Jong-Tan (Park Hoon), is also subverted–as Do-Sik’s ability to play to a crowd renders Kyung-Mi and her mother’s closest chance at safety useless thanks to a Police taser.
Kwon’s casting of a well-known actor at the height of his international Squid Game fame as his manipulative, terrorizing villain feels like the masterstroke to Midnight’s tale of frustrating suspense. Do-Sik’s strength isn’t in how he can be both unassuming as well as good-looking, or in how he can manipulate others to do his bidding (to their doom). It’s how, in a world that’s willing to pat itself on the back for a bare minimum of accessibility while still isolating Deaf communities at large, Do-Sik really doesn’t have to do much to keep a disturbing amount of control over the situations he places his Deaf victims in. When it comes to convincing the Police as to what’s happening, he can immediately raise his voice. In two scenes involving public police booths, it doesn’t matter that a video camera is recording their scene–because the Police officers on the intercom immediately assume the machine is broken when Kyung-Mi and her mother don’t speak up on their behalf (until Do-Sik does). In climactic moments, people in positions of authority literally throw Kyung-Mi over their backs and hand-deliver her to her aggressor with a smile on their faces.
While these sequences can range from the comical to the convoluted, Midnight’s point remains the same. As long as you can speak the language, the easier it is to hide your true intentions–while everyone else is forced into modern Cassandra-dom, silent witnesses to a truth they cannot give a recognizable voice.
Midnight is now available in limited theatrical release and on digital platforms courtesy of Dread. Dread will also release Midnight on Blu-ray May 10th.
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