Kwon Oh-seung’s debut feature Midnight is a sturdy genre picture whose novel character perspective helps ward off some of its narrative absurdity. The film follows Kyung-Mi, a woman with a hearing impairment who works as a virtual sign language customer service provider. One hellish night, Kyung-Mi (Jin Ki-joo) and her mother (Gil Hae-yeon) find their lives suddenly intertwined with a young woman named So Jung-eun (Kim Hye-yoon), as all three become the targets of an inhumanly intelligent serial killer, Do-Sik (Wi Ha-joon).
Midnight situates its proceedings within an environment enmeshed in casual misogyny and ableism, depicting both individual and institutional disregard for women and people with disabilities. However, it wisely sidesteps the trap of relegating its central women solely to the restrictive “victim” category. Kyung-Mi is a dynamic and interesting character, even when the plot guides her to make decisions that stretch the limits of plausibility. One particularly amusing scene depicts her enduring an awful dinner with ignorant clients, responding to their idiotic remarks with combative sign insults they cannot understand (“I said you look ugly; guess you don’t get it,” she signs to one man. “I’ll grind your face,” she tells another). Unfortunately, the film’s script often dictates that its characters follow the mandates of plot rather than allowing its story to adhere to plausible character psychology. As such, it requires a feature-length suspension of disbelief to an extreme degree: Midnight’s players make incessantly baffling choices simply to keep things moving from scene to scene.
But when Kwon settles into pure action, he does some genuinely exciting things. The director shapes entire sequences around the inherent tension between what Kyung-Mi can’t hear and what Do-Sik and the audience can (a squeaky door handle, oncoming traffic, the clink of blades inside a bag). There are some exhilarating foot chase and combat scenes, propelled by a breathless visual approach and some skillful choreography. Kwon also maximizes digital photography’s unique capacities for shooting nighttime sequences. Filmed primarily in handheld and tracking shots, Midnight achieves a persistent sense of lurking uneasiness, as if there might be someone hiding just outside the frame at any given moment. Do-Sik stores his weapons and some of his victims inside a van with neon pink interior, an unnervingly alluring beacon that floats unnoticed through the urban blackness. It’s also worth noting that the picture skillfully incorporates cellphones and text messaging into its narrative beats. The omniscience of this new technology has presented entirely new obstacles to horror creators, and Midnight thoughtfully rises to the challenge rather than working around it: some of the tensest moments stem primarily from misidentification or misdirection via SMS.
But above all, this is a straightforward genre picture with its focus on pure thrills. In some ways, it recalls John Hyams’ economical Alone (2020), although it never quite matches that film’s strongest moments of formal ingenuity. Additionally, Midnight showcases its allegiance to several classic horror movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, both through subtle visual nods and bigger thematic connections; while watching, it’s not hard to catch references to a number of such flicks, including Eyes of a Stranger (1981), The Shining (1980), The Hitcher (1986), and When a Stranger Calls (1979). So while it might buckle under concerted narrative scrutiny, falling prey to some of the genre’s familiar narrative and psychological shortcuts, Midnight works just fine as a solid piece of escapism.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 6.