(A.k.a. GIPEUTEODEU [original title]; THE SLEEPLESS)
Min-soo (Kim Beomjune) is fired from his job at an insurance firm after eight years of service. Eight years where he was constantly looked over for promotion. After two months of unemployment and countless interviews in which he's failed to find a new job, things are starting to get desperate. Especially as his fiancee Su-jin (Bae Junghwa) thinks he's still heading out to work each day.
Su-jin works in a cafe, where the owner is on the verge of selling the business and has offered her sole employee a bargain price ... if she can persuade Min-soo to help her buy the place. Of course, he's in no position to agree to such an extravagance.
As Min-soo continues to sink into a depressive state of low libido and heavy drinking, Su-jin decides to accept her boss's offer and commit to buying the cafe anyway. She figures that Min-soo can take out a loan in his name and his long-overdue promotion will help pay for it. Oh, little does she know ...
Of course, there comes a crisis point where Min-soo has to admit to Su-jin that he hasn't been working for weeks. She flips and, not surprisingly, dumps him. He determines to win her back by finding the money to help her buy the cafe.
But working two part-time jobs - one in a chicken processing plant, the other as a chauffeur to drunken businessmen who need their cars driving home on a night - is soon exhausting. Worse still, everyone he comes into contact with (including Su-jin at one point) recoils from him, such is the potent stench of raw chicken on his skin.
When Su-jin's younger brother Yeonwoo (Jeon Beomsu) offers Min-soo a job stealing cars on behalf of a local small-time hood called Choi, our protagonist is initially resistant. But he's skilled at breaking into vehicles, and the money is good. Before long he becomes Choi's greatest asset. The money is coming in, and yet he's still not happy.
Things improve slightly when Su-jin agrees to meet with him and he presents her with a designer handbag - something she'd always wanted but could never afford. Min-soo now has a job that pays good cash, it would seem, and Su-jin warms to him once again.
But there's something different about this successful, sexually revitalised Min-soo. He's more aggressive in bed, for a start. Unbeknownst to Su-jin, this is because a chance encounter with a former insurance firm colleague turned ugly a week or so earlier, resulting in murder ... and Min-soo now finds an enormous sense of release through strangling random victims to death.
GIFTED is a slow-burning film from writer-director Jai-hong Juhn, who's probably best-known for the 2011 drama POONGSAN. This South Korean feature looks at indigenous values such as consumerist aspirations (Su-jin, for all her outer sweetness, is clearly a very materialistic individual); social struggles (the threat of unemployment and the cut-throat world of trying to find a replacement job); loyalties; loss of identity (Min-soo's morals are strong to begin with, his conscience torturing him about making a profit from stealing cars, and he does show some conflict at times when succumbing to the ecstasy he feels while killing).
In terms of themes, I found GIFTED thoroughly engaging. There's also commentary to be had on the financial climate in South Korea. Not only is this evidenced in Su-jin and Min-soo's early predicaments, but also through the dead-end jobs the latter must take on to make a pittance of a living. Juhn also concentrates on showing us a rarely-seen side of South Korea in order to reinforce the world these characters are struggling to rise above: this is all graffiti-covered tunnels, back alleys, drab back-of-shop speakeasy-style gatherings and so on. Even Min-soo's apartment is sparse and minimalistic, devoid of colour or decor. This universe is, I feel, very consciously cold. Even the sex is cold. The only warmth to be found in GIFTED, in fact, comes during a beach montage scene and the Christmas lights which colour the screen during one portion of the film.
Well-acted and involving for its duration, I enjoyed GIFTED. However, it's difficult to pitch. It's not a serial killer flick in the regard that you're going to get thrilled by a high body count and some cat-and-mouse action. It's a quieter, character-driven affair. And yet, it never truly succeeds at being a character study: we don't really learn anything about these protagonists, certainly nothing that offers insight into what motivates them or where their redemption may lie.
Still, with its cool visual style, solid performances and barbed commentary on modern life in South Korea, I liked GIFTED.
88 Films bring GIFTED to UK blu-ray in its uncut form, boasting a running time of 102 minutes and 23 seconds.
Their 1080p presentation is housed on this region B-encoded disc as an MPEG4-AVC file. The picture is correctly framed at the film's original ratio of 1.85:1 and, obviously, is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Picture quality is good: strong detail, a keen sense of depth to many scenes, lusty colours in the brighter moments, natural-looking flesh tones. Some scenes are less vibrant than others, but this appears to be a stylistic move on the part of the filmmakers (and it's not uncommon of Asian cinema to tone down their colour palettes ...). A lot of the film does wallow in sparseness and drabness, so this is not entirely surprising.
Korean audio comes in options of 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Both are clean, dependable offerings. Evenly balanced throughout, either way you go will be sure to satisfy. Well-written, easily readable English subtitles are optional via your remote handset only.
The disc opens to a static main menu. There is no scene selection menu, but you can navigate your way through the film by way of 8 remote-accessible chapters.
We get one extra here: the film's original 91-second trailer. It does a fine job of outlining the plot without being too spoilerific. It too is presented in 1.85:1, and in HD.
This release also benefits from 88 Films' usual directive of having reversible sleeve cover artwork.
Well worth checking out.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|