Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: HEART BLACKENED, Well-Acted SILENT WITNESS Remake Emits Cool Pulse

By Pierce Conran

Chinese court thriller Silent Witness gets a sober and effective Korean update with Heart Blackened, a polished new offering from Eungyo director Jung Ji-woo that features an unflappable Choi Min-sik leading a strong cast. More serious and thus more drawn out than its rapid fire original, the film packs a solid emotional punch in its twisty climax.

When a famous singer dies, all signs point to the daughter of her fiancé Tae-san, the much older CEO of a corporate empire. Tae-san hires defense attorney Hee-jeong to clear her daughter's name, who begins to unearth some surprising evidence from the night of the crime.

In Fei Xing's original, which was viewed by some as a turning point for modern Mainland Chinese thrillers, the pace was relentless and, while often entertaining, the heightened tone bordered on the ridiculous. From a director known for his piercing human dramas, Heart Blackened is more restrained in its approach, as it lops off some of the theatrics and scales down the media storm. It's also far more focused, as it affords viewers the time to soak up the character dynamics that are crucial to accepting the film's twist and turns.

What's more, the perceived weaknesses of Silent Witness' climax are turned into a strength here, as the film builds towards a reveal rather than ambush its audience with it, not that it won't come as a surprise to most.

In his second leading role this year, following The Mayor, in which he played another high-powered individual who may or may not be operating on the wrong side of the law, Choi exudes gravitas as his ever stoic exterior tries to hold his inner turmoil at bay. We've seen Choi plays this kind of character before, but whereas most of his recent protagonists have been quite shady, Choi capably keeps the audience guessing as to the true intentions of the shrewd Tae-san.

Alongside Choi, hugely popular actress Park Shin-hye takes on the most mature and difficult role of her career. However, having shot her part at the tender age of 26, it would be a stretch to say that she's entirely convincing as the attorney. She gives Hee-jeong her all and the character is well written, but it's a gamble that never fully pays off. That said, it is easily her most impressive performance to date, and should tee her up for more exciting projects in the future.

Following scene-stealing roles in The King and A Taxi Driver this year, superstar-in-the-making Ryu Jun-yeol is once again on point as a mysterious young fan of the deceased singer. He gets most of the laughs in a relatively dry story, but the part isn't quite on par with his prior 2017 hits. Meanwhile, Park Hae-joon is suitably blustery as the prosecutor while Lee Ha-nui (aka Lee Honey) gracefully breathes life into her brief role as the murdered singer.

Filtered through the blues and grays of the gleaming Gangnam district, Seoul's most affluent neighborhood, Heart Blackened exudes a cool and cold energy throughout, partly owed to its wintertime production. Borrowing from the strengths of the original and building upon some of its flaws while folding in a uniquely Korean feel, Jung Ji-woo gives this pulpy tale renewed dramatic weight.


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  1. I'm always confused as to how interpret Korean box office figures.
    With 500k tickets sold is it considered a commercial failure? Seeingly it's not a bad number, but than again if you look at several other movies with multiple-million admissions, than it feels bleak in comparison. Especially for a movie that has Choi Minsik in it.

    So what I'm trying to ask is: has Heart Blackened bombed in the box office?

    1. The short answer is yes.

      Put it this way, a film like HEART BLACKENED probably cost over KRW 5 billion to make ($4.5 million), plus KRW 1.5 billion or so to market. So to break even in theaters, even if we're being generous, it would need KRW 12 billion ($10.8 million) in sales.

      With 500k viewers, the film's box office tally is just under KRW 4 billion ($3.6 million), which is about a million entries shy of what might be the BEP (break-even point).

      Granted, a film can make money from international, domestic VOD, and physical media sales, as well as TV and streaming rights, but for most films in Korea, the vast majority of a film's financial take happens in Korean theaters.

      To be considered a success (not merely break-even), a film with this kind of backing and pedigree would probably need to cross the 2 million viewer mark. Budgets and expectations have risen considerably over time, it's a tough market these days and the majority of commercial Korean films actually lose money. The industry is still profitable, but only on the back of a fistful of out-sized hits.