Friday, March 12, 2010

"Tell Me Something" Review

Seldom have I rented an unknown movie and had it work out this well. Scary, touching, gory, funny - 1999's "Tell Me Something" does it all, and does it well. I hadn't seen a Korean movie before this, and I was blown away by a perfectly-executed thriller/crime film.

Still, when I started watching, I didn't know what to make of the opening: moody and atmospheric, an apartment door opens to admit a man. As the credits pop up, the camera pans oddly over 300+ year-old paintings. Interspersed with these rough artworks, we return to the man, whose limbs are now being removed on a surgical table. The camera follows the gloved hands of the butcher, who gets into a car, placing an ominous Hefty bag in the trunk. Which brings us to our lead...

Detective Lieutenant Cho is a cop on the edge. At least he has good reason: his intro is being questioned by Internal Affairs agents. He claims to have no idea that one of his crime suspects paid his mother's hospital bills (85 million won worth). IA doesn't buy his ignorance. Rough day much?

His next stop is a crime scene where a boy died by falling. There he finds an Aggressively Asinine Co-worker (AAC), ready to make it worse. His hostile colleague smack talks him while they stand over the kid's corpse. It's not a good idea to tell Lt. Cho that he really needs to do well on this case, or that his bribery defense is absurd. Our protagonist lands a few punches before being restrained. Yes, Cho IS a cop on the edge.

And he's about to get a whole lot edgier - a serial killer is leaving bundles of human parts (e.g., arms, head, legs) around Seoul. Finding a head, torso, and legs in a bag makes identification difficult, because you can't find fingerprints without arms. Then the medical examiner tells him that the legs don't match the rest. So now they've got a second victim. Nor is the coroner done with his bad news - the man was alive but unconscious while he was segmented. Oh, and Cho's mother's funeral was yesterday.

Many things about this movie - from our protagonist's "troubled cop" stubble, to his best-friend-and-partner, to aspects of the killer's origin - are not original. Yet that's never a problem; the story so skillfully told by the director is entertaining, scary, and interesting. Complete originality is not necessary when the work is well-done. Here, "Tell Me Something" surpasses much of what it copies.

Another strength of the film can be credited to both the actors and the writers: they tell us the story without ever taking the focus off of the characters and their feelings. This is especially true (and impressive) for those characters whose expressions are hardest to read. I love the interrogation room sessions, the "cut the crap and talk to me" scenes, and I love seeing the Korean version of the police brass who hinder and hassle our hero cop.

Why do I rate the characters so highly? Because I comfortably fell in with what was happening on the screen. Want an example? We first meet the coroner as he walks onto the film's second crime scene - a hefty bag on a car's back seat. He yells at the officers to stop compromising the evidence and establish a police cordon. "No wonder they call you pigs," he says. After that he asks for a light, deciding instead to just steal one detective's cigarette. He informs a patrolman that a traffic cam caught him speeding, and tells him to take care of it. Then he adds "don't screw it up like last time." I loved this guy even before he gave his condolences to Cho.

Keep in mind that while this story is gory and violent, those aspects are used very well and not gratuitously. Remember that opening dismemberment? A doctor told me it looked realistic, and we were both happy that the gore was relatively light. Especially at a film's start, that sort of scene implies a really nasty ride ahead. That would certainly be true if this film were helmed by Japanese director Takashi Miike, or done in the vein of modern torture-porn.

Yet what is ugliest in this picture is psychological, for both characters and audience. The people in "TMS" are under intense pressure, and it shows. People close to you dying, being a victim and a suspect, lies, political moves - some or all are piled onto the leads as they face a smart murderer. The viewer never knows what might happen, or what opaque complication will arise in the narrative. Images can jolt you, but anticipation itself is usually stronger.

When you watch thrillers or horror, you might see intense gore. It only offends me when it feels like it serves no purpose other than to be so extreme that people will pay attention to it - think "Hostel," the remade "House of Wax," the "Saw" sequels... Since those movies feel quite lifeless outside the special effects department, being so grisly isn't justified. I don't need a nihilistic money-grubber's cheap effort to make themselves relevant or memorable.

When it's scary, however, you can tell that the filmmaker is engaged in an appropriate effort to spook the hell out of you. The go-to examples are "A Nightmare on Elm Street" for serious terrifying material and "Evil Dead II," which has both serious and comedic gore/violence. Each movie has showers of blood. The gore in both works fluidly, never feeling like cheap attempts to shock. I think "Tell Me Something" is also on the right half of that divide.

As a long-time watcher of Asian cinema, I was really stunned by the fact that all of the production values are top notch. I love everything here: script, camerawork, actors, and music. None of it seems cheap, shoddy, or poorly-utilized. It stands out because my favorite HK films had grainy film stock that looked 10+ years older than what America used at the same time. Or maybe the audio didn't sound as good as it should have. Or they had bad translation in the subtitles. I was accustomed to getting great stories in slightly cheaper packaging. No such flaws here.

This is such a good movie. If you don't mind several gallons of red on your screen, check this out. I can virtually guarantee that you'll love the ride. As I said at the start, "TMS" does it right.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    We've browsed through your reviews and thought that they are really original and interesting! We would like to invite you to publish your reviews on, which provides an alternative platform for promising movie reviewers to showcase their talents. In addition, you'll find a growing community of bloggers who share the same passion for excellent movies! Based on the merit of your reviews, we intend to offer you exclusive publishing privileges on our website!

    7tavern Team


Chime in!