Diva (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A diver on the brink of madness

South Korean film “Diva” is a little psychological thriller packed with conflicting emotions between two different young female athletes. Although sometimes feeling a bit too conventional and predictable as reminiscent of many other similar genre films ranging from “Repulsion” (1965) to “Black Swan” (2010), the movie is mostly competent on the whole, and I appreciated several good elements including its strong lead performance even while often distracted by a number of weak elements in the film.

After the opening scene showing one unfortunate car accident, the movie quickly establishes the relationship between I-yeong (Shin Min-ah) and her best friend Soo-jin (Lee Yoo-young). As shown from a brief flashback scene, I-yeong and Soo-jin have been inseparable thanks to their shared passion toward diving, and both of them have been the members of a prominent diving team, but it soon becomes clear to us that there has always been a considerable gap between them. While I-yeong has been the star athlete of the team, Soo-jin has been the least distinguished member in the group in contrast, and it is quite possible that she may soon be dismissed from the team.

Although she always cannot help but feel uncomfortable whenever her best friend watches her getting all the attentions from others, I-yeong tries as much as she can for keeping Soo-jin around her. Despite the team coach’s understandable objection, she decides to train along with Soo-jin for their synchronize diving in addition to keeping focusing on her solo diving as before, and then, what do you know, Soo-jin comes to show a lot more confidence and skill than before.

Not so surprisingly, tension is slowly developed between I-yeong and Soo-jin due to this unexpected change thrown into their relationship, and then the aforementioned car accident occurs. As their car is sunk into water during the accident, I-yeong manages to escape and then survive alone, but then she becomes unconscious during next several days. When she finally wakes up, she is notified that Soo-jin is presumed to be dead although the police still cannot find her body yet, but she cannot remember what happened at that time, so she naturally feels confused from time to time, while also trying to recover and then resume her training for the upcoming competition for selecting Olympian athletes.

Once I-yeong returns for her training, everything initially looks fine on the surface, but then she finds herself suddenly becoming quite nervous when she is on the diving board. During this and other key moments in the film, director/co-writer Jo Seul-yeah deftly emphasizes how much I-yeong looks vulnerable on the edge of the diving board, and you may wince from time to time if you have aversion to heights like me.

Because it simply looks like she cannot do the training along with other team members, I-yeong requests her own private place for training, and her request is quickly accepted, though her new training place is not exactly ideal to say the least. Although the place is cleaned and scrubbed a lot in advance, it still looks shady and shabby with the constant lighting problem, and it surely feels ominous as I-yeong is doing the training alone in the evening.

Anyway, this seems to help I-yeong considerably, and she does not disappoint her coach and team members during one major competition, but her mind still remains troubled as trying to figure out what the hell happened at the time of the accident. As it turns out that Soo-jin was not totally honest with her, I-yeong’s supposedly strong will and determination become more unstable, and she also begins to experience a number of very disorienting moments, which clearly signify to us that something is not right at all somewhere in her mind.

While its heroine’s viewpoint gradually becomes unreliable along the story, the movie pushes us further into her growing panic and confusion. There is a short but scary moment when a certain genre cliché involved with elevator is effectively delivered, and I also like one particularly scene where the camera smoothly follows I-yeong and then suddenly reveals her seriously disoriented status.

Although it stumbles during its last 20 minutes as hurriedly explaining everything and then delivering the expected finale, the movie is supported well by the solid performance of Shin Min-ah. While looking as convincing as required in those diving scenes in the film, she is also believable in her character’s inner conflict and deterioration along the plot, and her beautiful expressive face is certainly utilized well as the foreground of the story. Even her character does not seem to express anything, Shin subtly suggests the repressed feelings and thoughts in the corner of her character’s mind, and that is the main reason why we are not so surprised when her character comes to dive into more madness later in the story.

The other notable cast members of the film are mostly stuck with their respective functional roles while ably supporting Shin on the whole. While Lee Yoo-young did a fine job of hovering over the story as required, Lee Kyu-hyung and Joo Suk-tae are suitable as two male supporting characters at the fringe of the story, Oh Ha-nee brings some spirit and personality to her small but crucial role in the movie.

In conclusion, “Diva” is fairly entertaining at times during its 84-minute running time, but it is not successful enough to compensate for several noticeable flaws including its rather weak last act. Nevertheless, Jo, who incidentally makes a feature film debut here, demonstrates to us that she is a good filmmaker with considerable potentials, and I hope that she will soon get a chance to move onto better things for her growing filmmaking career.

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