Businessman Han Sang-soon (Lee Sung-min) comes home late from a workplace party to witness a brutal murder from his apartment window – and for the murderer to see him doing so. Keeping quiet to avoid becoming a target himself, he soon finds himself stalked by the killer anyway and unwanted repercussions building for those around him.
The Witness is a South Korean thriller directed by Jo Kyu-jang, one that has enjoyed huge commercial success back in its home country. It presents a faulty protagonist making a particularly dubious choice – not to report the violent killing of a young woman – and then ratcheting up his paranoia twist by twist as he begins to suspect the murderer is deliberately following him around. It has a good cast, but otherwise fails to make too strong an impact. South Korea has no shortage of crime films or thrillers, and as a result it takes an awful lot for a movie to stand out from the crowd. The Witness is competently made, and on its own merits fitfully enjoyable, but it lacks the one inventive idea to boost its appeal.
What the viewer is left with is a relatively unlikeable lead; one whose cowardice and indecision begins to have a cost to other people. His reluctance also slows the plot interminably, since while he chooses not to act the story is forced into a sort of narrative paralysis. Things do happen but few of them are that interesting, and the ones that are find themselves shoved back into the film’s busy third act. The film ends particularly well – get through a silly climax and there’s a genuinely effective epilogue – but good epilogues don’t save ordinary films. A subplot about local residents resisting the police investigation to avoid a fall in property prices has merit but feels under-developed.
Lee Sung-min does his best with a rather two-dimensional role, but there is only so much he can do to lift the material. Jin Kyung fares much better as Han’s wilful and independent wife – still something of a rarity in this sort of movie – but she gets much too little to do. Kim Sang-ho is appealing as the police detective tracking down the murderer, but he is playing out old story beats and dialogue. Most frustrating of all is the killer himself, played by Kwak Si-Yang. He receives no back story or depth, despite the film’s near-two-hour duration. He has no motive, shows no logic, and is simplistically presented as a faceless, violent monster. Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees got more personality that this, and that was from behind a hockey mask.
On a technical level The Witness does its job sufficiently, but that just reflects the overall problem with the film. In as crowded a market as Korea, a crime movie cannot afford to be merely competent. I suspect its success at home will be due to popular stars, or weak competition when it was released. Whatever reason, its success does not travel well.