[Fantasia 2021 Review] ‘Midnight’ is a masterstroke of urgent thrills

While other thrillers about imperiled people with physical disabilities would rather contain the situations to as minimal locations as possible, Kwon Oh-seung‘s Midnight features a more expansive and urban playground. Mike Flanagan’s Hush has a woman trapped in her own home as a killer lurks outside; the events of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark are limited to an apartment. What is refreshing about Midnight is the lack of a level playing field, though. Unlike the aforesaid movies where the victims have a better sense of their surroundings, here the endangered women are largely caught outdoors.

Midnight immediately gives viewers a taste of the antagonist’s basic M.O.; he drives around Seoul at night in a van and snatches women off the street. Kwon avoids the grisly details of Do-sik’s (Wi Ha-jun) crimes and instead focuses on his downfall. Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo) and her mother (Kil Hae-yeon), both of whom are deaf, get entangled in Do-sik’s nefarious activities on one fateful night. Also present is a man named Jong-tak (Park Hoon), who is searching for his missing sister, So-jung (Kim Hye-yoon). The three strangers’ worlds collide once they realize they are both dealing with the same masked man; Do-sik has abducted So-jung, and now he wants to silence the witnesses.

“The strength of Midnight is its sense of urgency”

The strength of Midnight is its sense of urgency; everything takes place in a span of several hours rather than days. There is virtually no rest for the characters or the viewers. While this sounds like the nonstop thrills would become monotonous after awhile, Kwon manages to keep everything feeling fresh by giving the audience enough cool-down periods as well. Having the killer also play everything so close to the chest — for a short stretch of time, Kyung Mi, her mother and Jong-tak don’t even realize they’re within standing distance of the culprit — builds a high level of tension early on.

Once all the cards are on the table, Midnight wastes no time with the cat and mouse games. So-jung is running through traffic and relatively crowded streets, but not a single person stops to help her. There is even a point where the indifferent onlookers think she’s the threat, or they foil her attempts to get away. The frustration audiences feel as they watch is only a smidgen of what someone like Kyung-mi might deal with on a daily basis. This is an inordinate situation, of course, but her struggle here is communicated both effectively and scarily. The bystanders’ biases — they tend to side with the person who can intelligibly express themselves over someone who is different from them — come into full play when trouble arises.

This not being a procedural story, one that occurs over a longer period of time and with more police interference, feels downright invigorating when juxtaposed with other newer South Korean media. Rather, it’s more directly concerned with the victims. The subject of emergency and the tainting of safe spaces are broached too. While the microaggressive side of ableism is only faintly addressed, Kwon should be commended for not making Kyung-mi a superhuman because of her disability. In place of heightening her other senses to make her physically formidable against a fully hearing person, she learns to manipulate the systems against her.

Midnight is a pulse-pumping thriller with ample bursts of white-knuckled suspense”

Midnight is a pulse-pumping thriller with ample bursts of white-knuckled suspense. The characters sell an unusual story all thanks to aboveboard performances, and the plot turns are not always so predictable. It sounds weird to describe a movie about a serial killer chasing down women in the busy streets of Seoul as fun, but Midnight is exactly that. Kwon chooses to celebrate the victims’ survival rather than relish in the villains’ wickedness, and viewers will appreciate that in the long run.

Midnight had its Canadian premiere at Fantasia Fest 2021.

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