Chang Youn-Hyun’s grisly serial killer-thriller and police procedural Telmisseomding is no High and Low (1963), let me tell you; Akira Kurosawa’s spirit can rest easy. The South Korean film is, however, as terrifying as anything you might wish to see for Halloween, even if, like cowardly me, you find yourself blocking your view from time to time as blood-gushing human impalings and dismemberments fill the screen. This film, not for the squeamish, is still not so challenging in this regard, I am told, as its American counterparts; but those movies, when I view them at all, I watch on network TV, which deletes the more violent action. The few American entries I have waded through—Silence of the Lambs, Kiss the Girls, Se7en, Copycat—are all garbage. But Chang’s fiilm holds some interest.
The film opens with a scene of dismemberment. The victim, initially alive but chloroformed, is being divested of various parts. We aren’t shown the surgical slicer’s face. Thus, for a stretch at least, what we have is a “whodunit,” or, to be precise, a who-is-doing-it. The police are finding limbs and heads, bagged, strewn throughout the city, but the body parts, mismatched, are slow in identifying the male victims. Once the victims are identified, though, a pattern emerges: all the victims had dated the same girl, Su Yeon-Chae, who broke off each relationship once the suitor too ardently pressed his romantic case. Detective Cho, the lead investigator, suspects Su, whose past, it is implied, includes paternal incest, but he is also increasingly captivated by her chill beauty. Cho’s ambivalence thus begins to compromise his efforts to solve the case.
One thing I like about this shrewd film is that it’s as much about Cho as it is about Su and the whole case. When the film begins, Cho himself is under a cloud of suspicion; his peers wonder how he was able to pay for his mother’s expensive funeral on a police detective’s pay. The serial killer case, therefore, provides a chance for him to be seen at his crime-solving best. We are reminded of Hollywood films as diverse as The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939) and The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)—films about men driven to re-prove and redeem themselves. Chang and his collaborators on the script—Kong Su-Chang and In Eun-Ah (all three working from Koo Ban-Han’s original story)—are constructing here a significant psychological foundation. Just as relevant to the film’s thematic development as Cho’s impetus to re-prove himself professionally is his fixation on his mother, which we are able to infer only if we get a grasp of the entire situation in which the character is premised. Part of Chang’s intriguing social argument is that the incest taboo is selective: while boys are attracted to their mothers, who as a matter of routine defuse their sons’ stirrings, it is fathers—the parents themselves—who are attracted to their daughters, and these men, with less of a social, hence, familial conscience than mothers, may give in to their desire at the expense of their daughters. (It is the same in the U.S., where incidences of father-daughter incest far outnumber those of mother-son incest.)
Indeed, Chang parallels the vulnerability of Cho, as he (along with his equally vulnerable partner, Oh) investigates the case, and Su, whom he hides away in a secret, guarded location once it appears she is being stalked by whoever has been killing her former boyfriends. We may go further; because Cho wasn’t sexually victimized by his mother, whose memory he reveres, his vulnerability can claim both physical and psychological sources, the dangerous nature of his job, to be sure, but also his too close identification with Su, whose vulnerability his own reflects. We solve the case much sooner than Cho not because we are so superior in intelligence but because our view isn’t clouded by this too-close identification of his. Further hampering Cho’s ability to piece together the criminal puzzle, the solution to which is perfectly logical, is the pressure that his need to re-prove himself exerts on him. Chang thus constantly reminds us that Su’s manipulation of the detective is one more piece of the puzzle, not something outside the puzzle. Yeon-Chae exerts power over men in a partly conscious, partly unconscious effort to redress the imbalance of power between male and female that victimized her in childhood.
The vulnerability of females is the film’s unifying theme—and what a difference this is from American films in the same genre that seek to titillate by exploiting this vulnerability themselves. Chang seals his theme with a brilliant stroke: a key character, who in flashback we see as a boy, turns out in fact to be, in the present, a woman. This is not at all a “cheat,” the charge absurdly leveled against Alfred Hitchcock for the “lying” flashbacks in Stage Fright (1950). The “lie” there does not belong to Hitchcock but to the character disseminating it, whose account we “see” in a flashback. So it is with Chang, whose “deviousness” in fact suits image to the words of the character weaving her spell of deception. Her motive for the gender deception, and the intertwined motive for this other woman to try to kill her, may take a moment’s sorting out, but both these elements contribute to the film’s thematic purpose.
Tell Me Something is far from a perfect film, however. (I have no idea whether this is an accurate translation, but what a wonderful title regardless, especially with its note of intimacy compromising police procedure and its air of “please tell me what I want to hear.”) All the acting lacks depth. (Han Suk-gyu plays Cho; Shim Eun-Ha, Su.) Moreover, the film is soulless. Its theme is a compassionate one, but compassion for any of the characters is totally missing from Chang’s directorial disposition. Chang doesn’t seem deeply, humanly engaged.
However, Chang hit the jackpot. Tell Me Something was (and may still be) the most financially successful of all South Korean films.