I have had this one on my to-watch pile for quite a long time, and in fact I only discovered it after a DVD avalanche last night when feverishly searching for another film completely. But I was working late, and felt like maybe I needed something fresh and new to keep my attention. It’s one of those Korean serial killer films, a genre that they seem to do rather well, plus it had a really interesting cast. Did it manage to keep me awake during the long hours, or was it hiding unwatched for a reason?
“The Neighbours” is based around an apartment complex, where recently a spate of deaths have been occurring, and in the latest incident a young girl (Kim Sae-ron) was kidnapped and then found decapitated in a suitcase. This puts the various residents on alert, wondering if the killer might be amongst them. The girl’s step mother (Yunjin Kim) is wracked with guilt (as she failed to pick up her step daughter on the night in question), and his haunted by visions of the dead girl. A Bag Salesman (Lim Ha-ryong) realises that he sold the suitcase in question to a resident. A Pizza Delivery Boy (Do Ji-han) realises that he is always asked to go to the same address every 10 days, exactly the pattern of the murders. A security guard (Chun Ho-jin), beset by demons from his own past, starts to realise what might be going on, but is reticent to intervene in case it exposes him. A young girl (also Kim Sae-ron), bearing an uncanny resemblance to the last victim is a constant and popular presence around the complex. And a minor Hoodlum (Ma Dong-seok) starts a personal war with a loner (Kim Seong-gyoon) who recently moved in over a parking space. The loner is also constantly bothered by the Mother of the living girl (Jang Young-nam), as she is in charge apartment committee and is worried about plans for a new development. All these various storylines intersect and combine together, leading eventually to a realisation of who the killer is, a kidnapping, and a race to save the young girl before she becomes the next victim.
This really is quite an ensemble piece. Other than Kim Yunjin, few of the other actors will be household names outside of Korea, but they are all familiar faces for hose of us that have watched films and dramas. And whilst it does run the risk of getting a little confusing sometimes (especially as much of the early part of the film jumps around a bit in time), I think it was all handled rather well, allowing every character to get some decent character development and their time to shine. More importantly, I don’t believe anyone here was particularly superfluous. The film is based on a popular Korean Webcomic, which I have not seen, but I assume was able to spend more time following down some of these tales, but here I really never felt too short changed.
Ironically, even though Kim Yunjin is the big name here, hers was the character that I felt least involved with. She did little more than her now patented moping around act – and whilst that was fair enough with regards to the personality of her character, it simply did not grab me like some of the other performances on display. Ma Dong-seok played his hoodlum role brilliantly, somehow making a loathsome character in the end a somewhat believable hero. Jang Young-nam is always good value (and really deserves to be more than a supporting actress), and our Loner/Killer (no real spoilers here, it is pretty much a non-secret only a few minutes in) Kim Seong-gyoon is suitably both evil, yet tortured.
The real star for me is Kim Sae-ron. She really came to prominence in “The Man From Nowhere”, but here I thought she was amazing. The girl is only 12 years old, but with little more than a prop wig, she managed to create two distinct characters, utterly different in personality. Now, I am sure to asian eyes the visual similarity is much more telling, but it took me a long time to realise they were the same actress. This young girl is going to be a huge talent.
There are many scenes which I utterly adored, such as the utter fail of the Killer to attack the Hoodlum. The actual highlight for me is a little postscript, where the wife of a character who was kidnapped is told by her husband that he still wonders why he wasn’t killed. The reason is then shown to us, that our killer was actually after company, as he was being haunted by the visions of the last girl he killed. It’s a moment of sensitivity that I simply did not expect.
You may have guessed, that this is a pretty dark comedy at times (although it does have moments of melodrama, and you could make an argument for it being a Ghost Story too) but then it would not be Korean if it didn’t mash up the genres now would it?). And this is my real complaint. The film at it’s core is about two things. Firstly it is about how modern Korean society is getting very disconnected, whether it be between families or Neighbours. Relationships break down, people keep suspicions and secrets from each other, there is no sense of community. For this part of the film, the dark comedy is perfect. However, it is also about a Child Killer (indeed, a Serial Killer) and sometimes I did wonder if the film was lacking a bit of respect and gravitas towards this particular theme.
Some reviewers have complained that the film is a bit too jumbled, worried about too many characters, that it lacks focus. Also that the conclusion isn’t quite epic enough. I know where they are coming from, and I will agree that the film is not without its faults in this area. But I pressed play really not expecting to enjoy the film that much, and ended up utterly engrossed. It is certainly not a classic, but it is a pretty darn good watch, and when you add in a stellar performance, you get Highly Recommended!