Style-savvy Korean suspense thriller dials W for wardrobe


Korean suspense thrillers are a little like Korean soccer games: rough, provocative and erupting with violence. Ultimately though, the scenes — like the soccer plays — are rigorously disciplined and calculated down to the tiniest detail. It goes without saying that both are extremely watchable.

“Memories of Murder” (2003) and “Mother” (2009) — both directed by Bong Joon Ho — are among the genre’s masterpieces. With “Secret,” a husband and wife tale of murder and betrayal, first-time director Yoon Jae Gu doesn’t quite reach the bar set by those films: It feels a little short on surprises and also takes its sweet time in getting to the crux of the matter. Still, the compulsion to keep watching — and guessing — becomes addictive.

“Secret” is also obsessed with style and shopping. Shot in winter-collection- runway hues of blue, black and gray, and starring former model-turned-actor Bang Joon Seo, the film’s fashion concerns occasionally override the story, and Yoon has no compunctions about using entire frames to highlight the lapel of some swanky suit. In some spots, the ploy works (the bad guy has a penchant for snakeskin jackets that may or may not cause him to channel Robert de Niro in his mafioso glory days); in others, its fashionista strutting interferes with more pressing issues. I mean, here’s a cop who suspects his wife of murdering a Korean underworld boss. Wouldn’t wardrobe concerns be at the bottom of the list?

Director Yoon Jae Gu
Run Time 105 minutes
Language Korean (subtitled in Japanese)

But no — the opening scenes are all about attire, as the cop cozies up to his wife preening herself in front of the dresser: “I’ve never seen that shade of lipstick before.” “You don’t normally wear those earrings.” “When did you buy that blouse?” He tosses these comments to his beautiful but unresponsive wife, as he himself is discreetly but stunningly dressed to the nines. Whatever else happens in the story, you can bet these two aren’t going to be caught in sweats and bad hair.

Which brings us to the story. It’s busy and protracted and packs a bit too much (including nostalgic plot contrivances lifted from classics such as “Basic Instinct,” “Presumed Innocent” and “Jagged Edge”) into its 100-odd minutes.

The protagonist, Kim Sung Ryeol (Bang), is a police detective in an unnamed Korean city — and his smooth good looks and Zegna suits apparently hamper, rather than enhance, his career. When a colleague’s wife extends an invitation to a steamy affair, he can’t bring himself to say no.

Trouble brews fast and hard: On the way back from a hotel date, Sung Ryeol picks up his young daughter in his car, takes a call on his mobile from the lover whom he had just kissed goodbye, and has a major accident on the freeway. He survives, but his daughter doesn’t. At the hospital Sung Ryeol can’t explain what happened or why, and his wife, Ji Yeon (Song Yun Ah) goes half mad with grief. Their marriage falls apart, but Sung Ryeol stays in the relationship out of sheer guilt, while Ji Yeon hardly registers his presence.

Work is Sung Ryeol’s only respite, but even that’s threatened when the brother of a gangster boss is stabbed to death: From the clues left behind at the murder site, it’s clear that Ji Yeon is in it up to her neck. With the gangster boss screaming for revenge and a witness ready to point the finger at Ji Yeon, Sung Ryeol braces himself to protect her, come what may.

Ji Yeon, for her part, seems bemused at Sung Ryeol’s efforts and flatly refuses to cooperate.

The story hangs on the question of her guilt, but the subplot — where Sung Ryeol is threatened by a blackmailer disguised as a Pierrot — is more interesting. Sung Ryeol attempts to placate this mystery man with cash, but the Pierrot says he’d rather have the privilege of bedding Ji Yeon. And Sung Ryeol is so desperate that he gets close to offering up his wife in exchange for the Pierrot’s silence.

The distinguishing hallmark of this Korean suspense thriller is its emotional level, pitched throughout at maximum. In “Secret,” the characters may dress like they’re cool and aloof, but under the snazzy jackets brews a caldron of hate, twisted lust and jealousy — unvoiced but surfacing from time to time like hot lava. The fashionable props seem incongruous, somehow even insulting.