Three (2020) ☆☆1/2 (2.5/4): A dryly chilling serial killing story from Kazakhstan

Not long after “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006) was released, there came “Tulpan” (2008), a little overlooked comic gem from Kazakhstan which shows a lot about that country which was hilariously misrepresented in the former. Around the time when “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2020) was released, there came “Three”, a small but chilling film inspired by a real-life serial case in Kazakhstan in the late 1970s. Although it is automatically compared to other similar genre films ranging from “Se7en” (1995) to “Memories of Murder” (2003), “Three” is often engaging while taking us back to its dry but realistic period background, and that compensates for its several notable flaws in terms of story and characters to some degree.

After the gruesome opening scene showing the serial killer in the story committing his latest act of killing and cannibalism, the movie introduces us to a young police officer who has just begun his first day in a local police station in an unspecified city of Kazakhstan. Like any other rookie cop, Sher Sadikhov (Askar Ilyasov) is ready to prove himself as much as he can, and his seniors including his direct superior naturally observe him with mildly detached amusement while going through another usual day of theirs.

However, there soon comes a big case which troubles all of them. The severed head of some woman is discovered, and Sher and other cops begin to search for any possible suspect. When some guy, who later turns out to be the boyfriend of that murdered women, comes to the police station for his confession, it looks like all they will have to do now is recording his confession, but they all come to sense that this guy is lying, and it is eventually revealed that he has a rather pathetic motive behind his false confession.

Nevertheless, this guy also turns out to be a very valuable witness to help the investigation. When more suspects are brought to the police station, he suddenly becomes quite nervous at one point, Sher and his colleagues instantly sense that there is certainly the killer in this group of suspects. Two persons in the group eventually come to draw more attention, and Sher later visits one of them without much expectation.

Of course, it does not take much time for Sher (and us) to realize that there is something fishy about that suspect. While this suspect looks like your average loser on the surface, there is also something creepy about his attitude, and, what do you know, he turns out to be the one Sher and his colleagues are looking for. He subsequently does another shocking thing right in front of his drunken friends, and that is just a tip of the horror of what he has committed for months.

However, things get more complicated when this serial killer somehow escapes when Sher and his colleagues come for his arrest. Because Sher gets injured a bit on his shoulder at that point, his older sister Dina (Samal Yeslyamova), a schoolteacher who has lived with him for years since they lost their dear parents, becomes quite upset, and Sher is embarrassed a lot because of that. Sure, she cares a lot about him, and he also cares about her, but he cannot help but become annoyed by how much she is still devoted to him while not taking care of herself that much in contrast.

And then Dina is suddenly disappeared not long after she argued a lot with Sher, and Sher becomes quite concerned about because it is highly possible that she becomes the latest victim of the serial killer. Although he is not fully recovered from his injury, he is quite willing to participated in the ongoing search, and his direct superior allows that despite some reservation.

Around that time, we are supposed to care more about what actually happened to Sher’s older sister, but she is not particularly developed well even though she is one of a very few substantial female characters in the story. While Samal Yeslyamova, who won the Best Actress award for “Ayka” (2018) at the Cannes Film Festival, brings some genuine warmth to the screen, but we do not get to know that much about Dina besides her relationship with her brother, and she ends up being no more than a mere plot element.

During its last act, the movie also attempts to make some points on how much the Soviet government was willing to ignore and cover up the case just for preserving the public image of its country at that time, but that is where it becomes a lot less subtle than before. We even get an urgent chase scene unfolded inside a moving train, and the mood certainly becomes quite violent as Sher finally confronts the killer again. While Askar Ilyasov is effective as his character is driven more by his growing obsession with the case, Zhandos Aibassov is as disturbing as required by his murderous role, and Igor Savochkin and Nurzhan Sadybekov are also solid as two senior police officers around Sher.

“Three” is the second feature film of director/producer/co-writer Ruslan Pak, an Uzbekistani filmmaker of Korean descent who previously made “Hannan” (2011). Although I am not so satisfied with “Three”, it still shows at least that he is a competent filmmaker who knows how to draw our attention via mood and details, and I sincerely hope that he will impress me more in the next time.

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