2001 South Korean blockbuster "Last Witness (Heuksuseon)" (available as a Region 3 import DVD) belongs to that select group of films that work far better as a beautifully shot and alluring trailer than as an unimaginative and cliché-ridden two-hour movie. Based on the best-selling novel by Kim Seong-jong and the handiwork of prominent Eighties director Bae Chang-ho, this politically minded feature dabbles in the territory previously explored by "Shiri (Swiri)" and "Joint Security Area (Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok JSA)", that is, the scars left by the Korean War and the subsequent division of the country into the communist North and democratic South. Unfortunately, "Last Witness" ends up being a disappointing mess where the emotional weight and political subtext play second fiddle to gratuitously overblown action sequences, amateur melodrama, and tired murder-mystery conventions.
The film's opening scene contrasts the release of political prisoner Hwang-seok (Ahn Seong-ki of "Musa" and "Art Museum by the Zoo") after fifty years in solitary confinement and the discovery of a stabbing victim in a harbor, who is later identified as Yang Dal-su (Lee Ki-yeong). Renegade cop (is there any other type?) Oh (Lee Jeong-jae of "Il Mare"), who has a penchant for using excessive force, is put in charge of identifying who killed Yang and why. His investigation, which includes visiting a trendy nightclub (thereby allowing lenser Kim Yun-su to film skimpily attired young women getting jiggy with it in slow motion), eventually leads him to Geoje Island, which once housed Korea's infamous Geoje Camp where North Korean POWs and South Korean communists were once incarcerated (this is the same camp that is briefly mentioned in "Joint Security Area").
However, the pieces of the puzzle start coming together when Oh comes across a fifty-year old diary written by Sohn Ji-hye (Lee Mi-yeon of "No. 3"), who is now blind and running an antique shop. The diary reveals Ji-hye's involvement in an escape attempt at Geoje, which was aimed at liberating her family's wrongly imprisoned former servant, Hwang-seok-- the man she loves. Also mentioned in the diary are the leader of the escape attempt Han Dong-ju (Jeong Jun-ho of "My Boss, My Hero") and the man who was sent to track them down, murder victim Yang. Thus, the recently released Hwang-seok immediately becomes the police's number one suspect. However, a few things still don't add up, and so Oh takes a detour to Japan to track down who he thinks may be the real killer...
If there is one thing that director Bae does right in "Last Witness", it is committing to film some of the most beautiful and eye-catching images. The film is almost wall-to-wall with stunning cinematography, with some of the more impressive set pieces being the slo-mo rain, mud, and blood-soaked escape from Geoje Camp, Hwang-seok being given chase by South Korean soldiers in a forest, Oh's gun battle with an assassin amidst bamboo just as it begins to rain, and the film's finale in a train station. And with the judicious use of classic opera pieces in the soundtrack (such as Puccini's "Madame Butterfly"), "Last Witness" is a feast for both the eyes and the ears.
However, all this visual and aural eloquence ends up being wasted with a threadbare script that seems more concerned with pumping out an action sequence every ten minutes as opposed to providing more background on the characters or telling an emotionally meaningful story. As a result, the doomed romance between Hwang-seok and Ji-hye, which is supposed to give the film its emotional weight, ends up being little more than a signpost along the way. The same goes with Detective Oh, who is given little to do other than following the clues and beating up the bad guys.
Among the cast, veteran actor Ahn is easily the most interesting person on the screen, who adroitly conveys the innocence and earnestness of Hwang-seok's youth, as well as his heartbreak of the present. On the other hand, the performance of his co-star Lee Mi-yeon is bland and unconvincing, particularly in the scenes that take place in the present, where she is supposed to be playing a seventy-year old woman-- not only is her wrinkle-free makeup unconvincing, but so is her acting. Finally, Lee Jeong-jae, playing the Korean equivalent of Dirty Harry, is passable as Oh, with his performance constrained by the limitations of the material.
Within its two hour running time, "Last Witness" dishes out Hong Kong style action, hard-boiled police procedural, historical and political drama, and romantic melodrama. Unfortunately, other than the stunning eye and ear candy that director Bae deliberately injects to the proceedings, very little in this slick production registers. Unfortunately, it seems that Hollywood and today's Hong Kong don't have the market completely cornered when it comes to combining the visceral with the vacuous.