Dubbed a 'hard-gore thriller', 1999's "Tell Me Something" is South Korea's entry into the 'serial killer thriller' genre. Thanks to a big-budget marketing campaign, a slick trailer, and the drawing power of its two ultra-popular leads, "Tell Me Something" was a big hit in its native land, ranking third in the 1999 box office, just behind "Shiri (Swiri)" and "Attack the Gas Station!" With the film's rich cinematography, polished production values, and basis in an established Hollywood genre, it isn't surprising that "Tell Me Something" has been picked up for stateside distribution, with a limited run starting in October, just a few months after the North American bow of "Shiri". And though "Tell Me Something" is dead-on in matching the quality of bigger-budget Hollywood productions (such as "Seven"), it also encounters the same stumbling block as its North American 'serial killer thriller' brethren-- a less-than-cohesive script.
During the summer of 1999, a number of black garbage bags begin appearing around Seoul, filled with the assorted body parts of three murder victims. The high-priority case ends up falling into the lap of Detective Jo (Han Suk-kyu of "Shiri"), a disgraced cop who he has just been put through the ringer by an internal affairs investigation. With the help of his partner Oh (Jang Han-seong) and a dedicated task force, Jo quickly learns that all three victims were former boyfriends of a comely but quiet museum curator named Chae Su-yeon (Shim Eun-ha, who co-starred with Han in "Christmas in August").
With his attention focused on Su-yeon, Jo spends most of his time with her, uncovering clues from her troubled past as a means to track down the killer. Meanwhile, the body count continues to mount, and Jo soon finds himself in the killer's crosshairs. But who is behind these heinous crimes? Is it Kim Ki-yeon (Yu Jun-sang), an artist who is obsessed with Su-yeon? Or is it Su-yeon's best friend, a medical resident at a local hospital? Or could it be Su-yeon's estranged father, whom she has not seen in five years? Or could it be Su-yeon herself?
Using the neon- and rain-drenched settings to great effect, "Tell Me Something" is a slick and gritty piece of neo-noir, rivaling the stark urban tableau seen in Wong Kar-wai's "Fallen Angels" or Ridley Scott's "Black Rain". Director Chang Yoon-hyun has a good understanding of creating the requisite atmosphere, as he infuses "Tell Me Something" with the creepiness and tension that you would associate with "Seven" or "The X-Files". This is also helped by the underplayed performances of Han and Shim, and the low-key script with a smoldering mystery that is gradually unveiled. Chang also earns the film's 'hard-gore' reputation by pulling no punches in the sporadic visualizations of the killer's crimes, which include dissections, severed limbs, decapitated heads, and copious amounts of blood. For the faint of heart, "Tell Me Something" is definitely best viewed on an empty stomach.
For most of its two-hour running time, "Tell Me Something" is engaging as it gradually ratchets up the suspense, drawing the audience deeper into the mystery while raising the stakes. Unfortunately, it is in the last act where the film starts to fall apart. Like the lesser entries in the 'serial killer thriller' genre (such as "Along Came a Spider" and "The Watcher"), the overly-elaborate scheme of the killer ends up overwhelming the logical concerns of the narrative. While the film's climax is well-shot and executed with a great soundtrack (including the best use of "Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in a film, which was also used in "The X-Files" and "Scream"), it ends up not making sense when viewed in the context of what led up to it. Even more distressing is the film's coda, which introduces another logic-defying plot twist courtesy of what is dubbed the 'Kodak moment' cliché of murder-mysteries.
Though some of the plot points hold up on subsequent viewings of the film, a number of them do not, requiring character motivations and circumstances to jump through hoops in order for the story to remain cohesive. In fact, audiences in Korea have been so mystified that a number of Internet discussion groups have sprung up just to unravel the film's convoluted narrative. I suspect that part of the reason for the confusion could be due to the omission of a few key scenes, which may have been left on the cutting-room floor. Two obvious logical gaps would be how Detective Oh is able to link a seemingly unrelated crime scene to the gruesome murders, and a significant 'change of heart' experienced by one of the characters, triggering the film's climax.
If it were not for the confusing ending, "Tell Me Something" would gain a wholehearted recommendation. But if you are able to forgive the story's narrative missteps (as this critic is), then there is still a lot to like in "Tell Me Something", which is an entertaining, suspenseful, and visually-arresting thriller that is on par with the better 'serial killer thrillers' that Hollywood has cranked out over the years. And for those moviegoers who missed its limited release in late 2001, your craving can be satisfied by the import all-region DVD and VCD, available now, or the North American DVD available in May 2002. Just don't watch it alone.