South Korean film “Drown” disappoints me in more than one aspect. Mainly revolving around an old motel run by its increasingly unreliable hero, the movie attempts a moody psychological thriller filled with anxiety and confusion, but it often falters due to its shallow narrative and thin characterization, and it does not even handle well some borrowed elements from other notable genre films such as, yes, “Psycho” (1960).
At first, the movie establishes how things have been frustrating for a middle-aged guy named Do-woo (Lee Joong-ok). For many years, he has run a little motel located in some rural region, but his motel business has been seriously declining during last several years due to many reasons including the decreasing number of guests. To make matters worse, there is another guest who committed suicide in his motel not long after the previous suicide incident, and this certainly does not help his motel business much to say the least.
In case of his private life, Do-woo does not have anyone close to him except his senile mother, who incidentally has a serious dementia problem. Because there was no one else to take care of her, Do-woo had to handle many things including medicine for his mother, and he has been devoted to his mother as much as Norman Bates, but his mother’s medical condition only gets worse day by day to his exasperation and frustration. While she is usually quiet and still without saying any word, she often goes into her tantrums without recognizing her son at all, and that certainly interrupts his motel business everytime.
After her latest big tantrum, Do-woo becomes so stressed that he comes to swallow some of his mother’s tranquillizer pills, and then something happens not long after he consequently comes to sleep during next several hours without any interruption. While his mother happens to occupy the reception desk in the meantime, somebody comes with a young woman, and, not so surprisingly, something bad happens shortly after that unknown figure checks into a motel room along with that young woman.
When Do-woo wakes up some time later, everything seems to be mostly fine and uneventful as before, but he soon comes to realize that something is quite wrong, because his mother is disappeared for no apparent reason. After trying to search for her alone by himself, he eventually contacts with the local police, and that is soon followed by an extensive search upon the motel and its surrounding area including a big nearby lake, though they still do not find any clue on his mother’s whereabouts.
As Do-woo becomes more anxious and disturbed due to his mother’s disappearance, another unknown figure comes to the motel. Because he previously saw this mysterious figure, Do-woo does not hesitate to let this mysterious figure stay at his motel, but then we gradually sense more of the bad influence from this mysterious figure, who seems to be quite interested in spending some time with Do-woo for no apparent reason. When some pretty lass comes just because she needs a place to stay at the motel later, the mood becomes a bit lighter than before, but Do-woo remains shy and introverted as usual, even when that young woman in question looks willing to get closer to him.
In the meantime, the situation surrounding the disappearance of Do-woo’s mother becomes more ominous than before. A local female detective assigned to the case soon comes to find about those two unknown guests who came to the motel around the time of his mother’s disappearance, and she soon begins to regard Do-woo with more suspicion because she senses that he did not tell everything to her from the very beginning.
Around that narrative point where Do-woo’s viewpoint becomes gradually unreliable, you may come to have some pretty good idea about what is really happening around him, if you are a seasoned moviegoer like me. All I can say for now is that the screenplay by director/writer Lim Sang-su, who is not incidentally related to prominent South Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo, will not surprise you much in the end. Yes, there eventually comes a surprising moment of revelation for Do-woo later in the story, but we are already seeing that coming from the distance, and we become all the more frustrated when the movie tries to muddle the situation more without much dramatic impact.
In case of Lee Joong-ok and several other main cast members in the film, they try as much as possible with their rather superficial roles. Lee did a good job of embodying his character’s longtime desperation and frustration without showing them off at all, Kim Dae-geon and Kim Yeon-kyo are well-cast in their crucial supporting parts, and Byun Joon-hee, Kang Mal-geum, and Gong Min-jung manage to leave some impression despite being stuck with their underdeveloped roles from the beginning.
On the whole, “Drown” is not a lousy piece of work at all, and I appreciated its foreboding atmosphere coupled with some bleak realism, but I observed its story and characters without much care and attention. To be frank with you, I happened to be quite tired when I watched the film right after returning from Seoul, and I just became all the more tired with lots of dissatisfaction. Perhaps, I should give it another chance later considering how I did not feel that well during my viewing, but, for now, I am not so particularly willing to do that.