The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here
The instinct is to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but obviously that’s not true; they make movies like this all the time, just not in America.
But when you get right down to it, even that isn’t really true; they make movies and TV shows like this all the time in America. They’re just rarely done nearly this well.
Confession, a 2020 South Korean thriller from Jong-seok Yoon, is chock full of twists and turns, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite game, VICTOR TRIES TO FULFILL HIS WORD COUNT WHILE TRYING TO TELL YOU ALMOST NOTHING WHATSOEVER ABOUT THE MOVIE
Yoo Min-hoo (So Ji-seob) is released from jail pending trial for the murder of his mistress, Kim Se-hee (Jin-Ah Im). He was found unconscious in a locked hotel room with her body, after they both received letters threatening blackmail. Yoo retires to a remote cabin to get away from the media, and receives a visit from Yang Shin-ae (Yunjin Kim), the kind of attorney you want in your corner if you’re accused of murder. He’s desperate to get her on the team, but she refuses to get into bed with a client that’s story is so full of holes. The film is, in a certain sense, a battle of wills, as Yang tries to piece together a case for reasonable doubt while dealing with a man who, whether he’s guilty or not, is clearly not telling the truth about something…
The film unfolds as a series of flashbacks, as Yang probes Yoo in an attempt to get to the truth. And where the film shines is in its awareness that we’ve all seen our fair share of thrillers before. We are, in a sense, programmed to try and outsmart the movie, to anticipate the twists before they come. And the movie is extraordinarily clever in the various ways it finds to either subvert expectations or make their reveals a split second after the audience gets there; at this late stage in the life of cinema, it’s almost impossible to spring a narrative trap that hasn’t been sprung before; and so Confession makes the smart play of minimizing the lead tome between audience revelation and in-film revelation, so that at best, any attempt to get ahead of the movie is fleeting at best.
As Yoo recounts the events of the second to last day he and Kim spent together, and how they tie in to what really happened in that hotel room, the film descends into a story within a story one that’s equally as suspenseful as the one in question.
It seems a little depressing that at this point in the game, we still have to resort to Hitchcockian to describe the art of flawlessly executed suspense set pieces; it’s not ideal that someone who made their last film 46 years ago remains the go-to reference. And yet, the word that most came to mind during this extended sequence was Hitchcockian; on this level of story, it’s the human level of suspense at play, and this was the thing that Hitchcock was so good at. The suspense comes not from conspiracy and manipulation, but from flawed humans reacting to events out of their control; finding themselves in a situation where they have to think on their feet and which, for better or worse, always reveals their true nature.
(Which is almost always worse, because where’s the fun otherwise…?)
This clever little ploy allows the film to, in a sense, have it both ways; there is the suspense of the flashback and the unforeseen consequences , plus the knowledge that at every point, we’re dealing with a pair of unreliable narrators; we know why Yoo might be lying, but there’s something about the way
As the fulcrum point that connects Yang and Kim, much is asked of So Ji-seob; if he can’t sell the ambiguity of his status and his situation, and the various truths he’s forced to concoct at a moments notice, the entire movie falls apart.
Ji-seob does half the job by just being very, very good looking and being willing to look very, very dumb.
As a rich corporate exec, it would be easy to paint Yoo with the brush of the arrogant elite brought to heel, or for Ji-seob to push to hard in his protests of innocence. But the tact the writers, and the performer take, makes for a far more interesting suspect: he’s so casual about the whole adultery aspect (and it’s notable just how little his wife exists as a character), and so eagerly falls into every rhetorical trap Yang lays out in trying to tease out his secrets that even though there’s absolutely no reason to trust him, it seems eminently plausible that he’s simply a boob, a hapless pawn in someone else’s larger game.
Plus: you kind of just want to trust a face like his.
For her part, Yunjin Kim gives as good as she gets. Put aside the fact that she looks like she’s aged maybe a year and a half since Lost ended over a decade ago; she was an underutilized secret weapon back then, and experience has only sharpened her gift for playing cool customers hiding depths behind an indomitable poker face. Her Yang runs rings around Yoo with such ferocity, that at some points you wonder if she’s the one framing him.
(She isn’t. That’s a spoiler I’ll give you for free)
I think I’ve said pretty much everything I can without getting into some of the more revealing details of what goes down here; Confession is a movie best experienced in real time, knowing as little as possible going in, and enjoy the sublime pleasure of getting suckered by true professionals.