Kian Bergstrom reviews “Bluebeard” for Cine-File Chicago

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About twenty minutes into this disturbing and sophisticated thriller, the main character, Seung-hoon, played expertly by Jo Jin-woong in a rare leading role, has a short but meaningful conversation with his landlord, Sung-geun, in a disarmingly creepy performance by Kim Dae-myung. Seung-hoon is a doctor trying to make a start in a new town after his clinic went bankrupt in Gangnam, taking his marriage with it. One afternoon in his crappy apartment, as he and his landlord try for a moment to make sense of their troubling lives, Seung-hoon starts talking about why he loves detective fiction. ‘I like having answers,’ he says. ‘Mystery books have answers in the form of criminals.’ There are many criminals in this movie, and many different kinds of crime are committed, but unlike the novels the main character loves, those criminals work to destabilize and frustrate the narrative’s questions much more than they put those questions to rest. BLUEBEARD opens with the discovery of a body in a funereal cityscape seemingly populated by stragglers, drifters, and aimless longing. Death is on everyone’s lips, in the background of every conversation here. In the midst of this, Seung-hoon slowly develops a terrible suspicion that the butchers he rents his apartment from are serial killing cannibals. Are those viscera near the meat grinder bovine or human? Does that opaque plastic sack on the high shelf in their freezer contain the head of a pig or the head of a woman? Was Sung-geun making a macabre joke or demonstrating his power over his tenant by offering him a human diaphragm for dinner? At work, Seung-hoon performs a mind-numbing torrent of endoscopies and colonoscopies, listening to his patients mumble and babble in their propofol-induced unconsciousness, peering into the pulsating tissues of young and old in search of secrets to keep them alive, while Sung-geun and his father efficiently dismember and sell flesh that’s visually indistinguishable from the insides of the people the doctor examines. But this not a movie built on such an easy dichotomy. Almost as soon as suspicions are raised about the butcher’s nighttime pleasures, in a few horrifying phrases uttered by the butcher’s father while under sedation, BLUEBEARD makes sure to turn those suspicions around to point equally at the doctor. Are the doctor’s lapses in memory the result of stress, exhaustion, and fear or are they the signals of a more ominous hidden life? Writer/director Lee builds her movie into a labyrinth of frames within frames, of shots that linger just a few seconds too long on seemingly banal imagery, on intricate discoveries of disruptive reflections and sifting spaces. She overstuffs the narrative with threat and transgressions—theft, kidnapping, blackmail, and more—making the world of BLUEBEARD a world of incalculable menace and secrecy. The film’s Korean title literally translates to THAWING, which would be a much more apposite name for this slow melt into horror and madness. By the movie’s end, any hope that evil has been vanquished and that righteousness has prevailed has been so utterly undermined that it makes more sense to say that a free-flowing malevolence has seeped its way into the city, poisoning everything within its horizon. This is a movie that wisely eschews easy scares as much as it avoids easy answers, preferring instead to unsettle, to horrify, and to fracture.

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