There are interesting pieces here and there in South Korean thriller movie “The Neighbours”, but the result is an uneven combination which does not fully utilize the potential in its components. This is a well-made thriller with good atmosphere and competent performers, and it surely arrives at the point where every piece fits with each other nicely at the finale, but it lacks enough momentum to move or develop its pieces for an effective payoff in the climax.
Its pieces are set in one old apartment building that took me back to my childhood years. When I was 8, my family lived in such a building like the one shown in the film. There was no elevator because it was a building of five stories, and its dim staircase inside was as clean as its shabby appearance outside, and our apartment was so small that it even didn’t have a bath tub(but we could have a shower, and there was a public bath nearby). The building was built more than 10 years ago at that time, and it looked a far older around the time when I was about to enter my college(our family had already moved to the better -and more expensive- apartment building at that time). Not long after that, the building and other buildings were demolished for re-development, and now the place in my memory is gone, replaced by new fancy apartment buildings.
But let’s get back to the movie itself now. While they are concerned a lot about the re-development to come, the people in the apartment building are disturbed by a terrible incident in their neighbourhood. There is a serious killing case which has not been solved by the police yet, and its latest victim is a young middle school girl who lives in their apartment building. Her stepmother (Kim Yoon-jin) has been tormented by her guilt due to the fact that she could have saved her stepdaughter at that time, and now she sees her ghost coming back to their home every night.
Meanwhile, some of her neighbors begin to sense that there is something strange about one of the residents in the apartment building. Because of his interest in the serial killing case, a pizza delivery boy(Do Ji-han) sees a suspicious pattern in one of his usual customers, who has ordered pizza every 10 days like the serial killer in question has committed murder every 10 days. The owner of suitcase store(Im Ha-ryong) is also suspicious about one reticent customer, who pays for a big suitcase with a questionable check, which is not bounced at the bank but written with a fake name.
The movie does not waste its time on this suspicion. Yes, they are suspicious of the same person and, this is not much of a spoiler, that guy is indeed that serial killer in question. When the movie shows his apartment of horror, I noted that it looks rather more spacious than others in the building – and I must say this is the first time I saw a South Korean apartment which was connected with a basement room below it.
The movie tries to build the suspense through how the killer finds himself unluckily cornered by his various neighbors while they don’t suspect him. There are a violent loan shark(Ma Dong-seok) who is pissed about how his creepy neighbour parks his car, a security guard with a skeleton in his closet(Cheon Ho-jin), a busybody mom(Jang Yong-nam) who frequently annoys the killer with the papers to sign or the resident meeting to come, and her young daughter whose striking resemblance to a dead girl upsets not only the killer but also a dead girl’s mom (both girls are played by Kim Sae-ron, a young promising actress I have watched since her stunning debut with “A Brand New Life”(2009))
You may ask how the hell the people in the building have never noticed that resemblance before, but I guess that is a major point of the story. They are supposed to be neighbours to each other, but they rarely interact with each other except when they gather for their resident meeting while not knowing or caring a lot about who lives next to or below or above them. The movie is based on a popular South Korean Internet graphic novel with the same name, and I heard its dark thriller story is not only about the disconnection between people in urban society but also about the good will of ordinary people who rise to the challenge together when they face a diabolical evil disguising as their neighbor.
I have not read that graphic novel yet, but my Internet acquaintances say it is better than the movie, and even I could clearly see the reasons behind their dissatisfaction. The movie feels incoherent especially during its first half because it does not mix the individual subplots well in the story while suffering from its constantly shifting tone; there are some nice suspenseful moments, but their build-up process is frequently hampered by other things including a blatant tear-jerking melodrama. In addition, the ghost scenes are not as scary as intended; under the bright lights, the ghost just looks like an ordinary girl who gets wet because she does not have an umbrella on rainy day.
The actors give good performances to compensate for their weak story to some degrees, though the movie never gives them the chance to generate the synergy between them. Kim Seong-gyon is both creepy and petty as a serial killer who gets nervous by his neighbors, and Ma Dong-seok is sort of likable in spite of his character’s ruthless side(the guy even beats his family member because he does not pay him back). Kim Sae-ron does an adequate and convincing job of playing two roles, though she deserves a better film like “A Brand New Life”.
There are more failures than successes in “The Neighbors”. It maintains its unsettling atmosphere well on the screen, and its actors are appropriately cast for their respective roles. However, the movie does not seem to know what to do next; it clumsily handles its busy plot, and its climax lacks the punch it needs as a result, and the following ending seems redundant and unnecessary in spite of its ‘surprise revelation’. In the end, I felt an urgent need to read its original graphic novel as soon as possible when the end credits rolled. That’s not a good sign for an adaptation, you know.