LKFF 2018: Heart Blackened Review
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Remakes are an interesting breed of films. For the most part they are considered rather negatively due to the abundance of poor products basically made with the only intention of copying the original film without bringing anything new to it (Gus Van Sant’s colourised version of Psycho is one of the most telling example of this practice). However, there has always been very good remakes (John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly or Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers being some of the best examples) which tried to extend the theme of the original film by exploring an auteur’s point of view on a good concept, and sometimes leading to a more superior film than the original.
Since the beginning of the 2000s - perhaps a sign of the times - there has been a wave of American films based upon successful Asian films with more (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) or less (Yann Samuel’s My Sassy Girl, The Guard Brothers’ The Uninvited) talent. There have also been several remakes not only American versions of Asian films, but also the opposite (Benny Chan’s Connected, Lee Sang-il’s Unforgiven) as well as Asian remakes of other Asian films (Song Hye-seong’s A Better Tomorrow, Lee Hae-young’s upcoming Believer). Jung Ji-woo’s Heart Blackened, a remake of Fei Xing's 2013 Chinese Courtroom Drama Silent Witness, is a new addition to this last category.
After celebrated singer Yuna (Lee Ha-nee Lee, Tazza: The Hidden Card) is killed, her fiancé, the older, super-rich CEO Yim Tae-san (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy), hires lawyer and family friend Choi Hee-jung (Park Shin-Hye, Miracle in Cell No. 7) to clear his daughter Mira (Lee Soo-kyung, Rainbow Eyes) of murder. Despite compelling evidence that seems to place the spoilt party girl - who had no love for her future stepmother - drunk and aggressive at the scene.
It is important to note that when a remake is discovered before its original version, the viewer’s perception is invariably twisted. Not having seen Silent Witness, it would therefore be inappropriate to compare the two films, even if it is legitimate to wonder if the best elements of this version can be attributed to Jung Ji-woo’s directorial and writing choices or to Fei Xing’s original screenplay.
Putting these considerations aside, what is notable in Heart Blackened is firstly its structure. For the most part, the film is a very conventional court drama in which a powerful businessman chooses to hire a young, less experienced but dedicated lawyer to defend his accused daughter, instead of the top legal team he would use in any other circumstances. Therefore, we’re clearly in familiar territory with a fairly conventional plot opposing justice, money and love and the choices made by a director clearly focussing on dramatic effects at the expense of realistic legal technicalities during the length of the trial. This doesn’t really make the first part of the film a particularly exciting viewing experience, often dangerously verging on boredom if it wasn’t for the scenes featuring Jun-yeol Ryu (A Taxi Driver)’s character, a fan who doesn’t seem to have any boundaries when it comes to his idol.
However, where this film clearly differentiates itself is in its third act. Even if many viewers will, most likely, regard it as too long (a criticism more appropriately levelled at the first part of the film), this concluding act nonetheless offers shattering insight into the suffering of man who has everything money can buy but who has lost something irreplaceable.
At the heart of Heart Blackened there is an exceptional performance from Choi Min-sik. Reuniting with director Jung Ji-woo nearly twenty years after their first and only collaboration, Happy End, the actor gives his director a performance so nuanced that it will most certainly require more than one viewing to grasp all aspects of it. It heightens the relationship between Yim Tae-san and his daughter to levels rarely achieved in these types of films making their suffering palatable, and undeniably contributes to the lasting impression the film makes long after the screen fades to black.