Around the ending of John Ford’s classic film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), one supporting character says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In case of South Korean film “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo”, the lie becomes fact, and they broadcast the lie. In the midst of the relentless competition for any sensational exclusive to draw more readers and viewers, its reporter hero comes across what looks like a chance of lifetime, but then he is swept along with a storm of media frenzy he unwittingly initiated, and the movie has a vicious fun with how he tumbles into more risks and troubles as his lies are growing bigger and bigger.
Jo Jeong-seok, who was impressive in his scene-stealing supporting performance in “Architecture 101” (2012), plays Heo Moo-hyeok, a young news reporter facing the early end of his journalist career. Because of his recent inaccurate report on some influential corporation, he is bound to be fired from his position in a cable news channel, and he cannot find any new position outside due to his mistake. In addition, his estranged wife Soo-jin (Lee Ha-na) no longer lives with him while trying to start her own career as an art gallery staff member, and she also considers divorce although she has been pregnant for several months.
When Moo-hyeok gets a tip-off about some suspicious guy possibly responsible for a serial killing case which has been drawing lots of attention from the media with no sign of closure, he is initially skeptical about this, but then he is surprised when he breaks into a dark, shabby place belonging to that suspicious guy in question. The walls in one room are covered with numerous newspaper articles on the serial killing case, there are also several notes reflecting the inner thoughts of a very disturbed mind. As looking around this uneasy place more, Moo-hyeok finds weird things which look red and disgusting, and that discovery is far more than enough to erase any doubt he might have.
Like any normal people would in his situation, Moo-hyeok immediately calls the police while not revealing his name, but then a good idea is dawned upon him. It seems the police are closing on their suspect while being cautious about not drawing any unnecessary attention from reporters, and that means he may have a golden opportunity to resurrect his career in his hand right now.
When he shows his superiors a note he took from the suspect’s residence, they welcome him again after quickly realizing that they come across a possible mother lode. Once the note is shown on TV, Moo-hyeok rapidly rises from the bottom to the top, and everyone including his fellow reporters, his superiors, and the detectives investigating the case wants to know what else he can give them. But, alas, there is a serious problem; he belatedly finds that the suspect in question is an unknown actor who was simply preparing for a play based on some Chinese novel about a mad serial killer.
As Moo-hyeok desperately attempts to hide his fatal mistake from everyone, the movie pushes further its wry, irreverent satire on media sensationalism. No matter how much he tries hard to get out of his mess through more lies and evasions, things keep going wilder and crazier beyond his control. Around the middle of the story, he and his colleagues happen to behold a big grand moment which they have never imagined before, and even Moo-hyeok cannot help but be amazed and enraptured by what his latest ‘report’ has just caused. But it is still apparent that he may pay a price bigger than he expected, and he becomes far more cornered than before as the plot more thickens.
While Moo-hyeok is not a likable guy to identify with, the director/writer Roe Deok, who previously directed romantic comedy film “Very Ordinary Couple” (2012), makes his panic and struggle look alternatively gripping and hilarious. It goes without saying that he had it coming from the start, but we are curious about what will happen next, and Jo Jeong-seok deftly moves around black humor and suspense in a number of key scenes where his character must be very careful around others who may realize the truth at any point.
Some of the supporting performers around Jo enjoy themselves as their characters intentionally or unintentionally push Jo’s character into more troubles. Kim Ee-seong and Lee Mi-sook are Moo-hyeok’s cynical bosses ready for any chance for higher ratings, and Lee is especially wonderful when her character casually shows her cold cynicism during one brief but chilly scene. Bae Seong-woo is a frustrated detective in the charge of the investigation, Kim Dae-myeong is effective as a man who can ruin Moo-hyeock once for all, and Lee Mi-sook is stuck with a thankless job of playing a character whose function in the story is already written all over herself right from the beginning. The movie tries to make some additional points through a subplot involved with one lousy artist Soo-jin has been associated with, but that subplot only leads to the point where she comes to make a very unwise choice for her (and her baby, of course).
“The Exclusive: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” is an entertaining mix of satire and thriller, and I was excited while frequently chuckling with the audiences around me during its satiric moments. It becomes shaky around its obligatory third act like many other thriller movies, but the movie eventually arrives in a big ironic moment of dark laugh, and we are reminded of how insatiable our hunger for sensational news stories is – and how willing media is to go along with that in these days.