Into the Mirror Review
Recent years have witnessed the general film-going public taking a renewed – and for that matter, quite vigorous – interest in Eastern horror, particularly those contributions of Japan and Korea (Ring, Phone, Dark Water, Ju-On, A Tale of Two Sisters, Kairo, etc.), and you'd certainly be forgiven for lumping Into the Mirror in with this general category. After all, at first blush it seems to obey the usual conventions. Contemporary, urban setting? Check. People meeting with nasty ends? Check. Inexplicable/supernatural goings-on? Check. The dead seemingly taking an active interest in the affairs of the living? Check. Moody atmosphere coupled with conflicted main characters? Check…
But then again, Into the Mirror does something rather peculiar that sets it apart from the better-known entries above: it doesn't quite seem to realise it's a horror film. Instead, what we have here is a genre hybrid that owes almost as much to the hugely-popular realm of Asian crime thrillers (e.g., Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled), and isn't afraid to spare screen time for standard detective analysis. Depending upon your own personal tastes, this could be construed as either a strength or a weakness.
The central plot is established quickly enough. Our protagonist is Woo Young-min (played by Yu Ji-tae of Oldboy, Natural City, etc.), once a respected detective in the ranks of the Seoul Police. However, after a simple mistake on his part leads to his partner being killed in front of his eyes, he is unable to forgive himself and resigns the force. Drawn out from this solitary life of self-loathing and guilt by his uncle – who as Chairman of Dreampia Department Store arranges for him to be hired on as Chief of Security – Young-min is now overseeing preparations for the store's grand re-opening after a disastrous fire three years earlier. As if the persistent belief among staff that the place is haunted and having to contend with angry protesters demanding compensation for the employees who perished in the inferno weren't enough, things abruptly take a marked turn for the worse when (within the first few minutes of the film) an employee turns up dead of an apparent suicide.
However, when a second Dreampia 'suicide' occurs in as many days (and then a third that can't possibly be misconstrued as a suicide), the Seoul Police begin to take a more active interest and send an ambitious detective (and ex-colleague of Young-min's) named Ha Hyun-su to head up the criminal enquiry. Somewhat stereotypically, there is a lingering enmity between the two men, as Young-min's former partner was a close friend of Hyun-su, and the latter views Young-min as not only culpable for what happened on that fateful night, but for becoming a dishevelled failure since. More interesting is how differently this pair choose to investigate the increasingly bizarre deaths at Dreampia: Hyun-su and his team embark upon a methodical examination of the evidence and believe that mundane detective work will yield a solution, but Young-min suspects from the start that something more sinister and supernatural is at work and the leads he uncovers take him in an entirely different direction. (Of course, by film's end these two paths will bring both men to the same destination.)
Whilst Hyun-su's findings suggest an earlier murder may have occurred (and been subsequently covered up by someone at Dreampia) of which the current deaths are a direct consequence, for Young-min matters take a very bizarre turn after he discovers a mysterious woman named Lee Ji-hyun snooping around the store premises with a camcorder. He becomes convinced (as she has already) that a presence inhabiting the 'mirror world' – that is, a reality apart from the simple reflection of our world that we assume we see in mirrors – is taking vengeance on the Dreampia staff for some dark reason of its own. From here the film's pace slows noticeably and it becomes more contemplative and philosophical. While there are of course further chills scattered throughout the remaining running time, they don't come nearly so thick and fast as during the first third of the film.
From a purely technical standpoint, nothing like Into the Mirror has been attempted before in cinema. The reasons for this are self-evident; as a general rule, filmmakers tend to limit the number of scenes involving mirrors purely because it becomes problematic to ensure that they do not reflect parts of the set that should remain unseen. Whenever mirrors cannot help but be present in a shot, the camera angle must always be sufficiently oblique in order that no trace of the production crew will sneak into the frame. So the fact that not only do most scenes in this film contain a mirror, but that in addition many of these are quite large and appear to be filmed dead-on, comes as quite a visual shock. There's something rather unnerving about these signature shots, as if part of the viewer's brain recognises that they simply shouldn't be possible to capture. However, unlike the usual CGI-overkill unreality witnessed in certain films (e.g., The Phantom Menace) which jars the audience out of its suspension of disbelief, the sort of cognitive dissonance induced by these lovingly-crafted shots only helps to underscore the atmosphere of surrealism that pervades Into the Mirror.
Also, as is only proper for a film that bridges the horror/mystery genres, Into the Mirror provides a lot of elbow room for its inherent 'detective/police procedural' element, dropping many hints all along so the observant can work out what actually happened before the final denouement. In this regard, the film plays remarkably fair and does not withhold necessary evidence… although with the rampant surrealism present throughout, viewers can certainly be forgiven for missing a few breadcrumbs here and there.
And regardless of how much you may figure out in advance, the final 'twist' (although I hesitate to call it that, it being more of a Big Reveal) is a guaranteed jaw-dropper and will certainly go a long way towards redeeming the film in the eyes of those who feel it isn't sufficiently frightening and/or complicated.
While it's true that Into the Mirror receives an anamorphic presentation on this DVD in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, this comes across as not nearly as crisp as we might anticipate from a modern (2003) release like this. There's quite a bit of grain – albeit fine – present throughout, but the print is thankfully devoid of dust, nicks or scratches, and the encode also successfully avoids macroblocking, rainbowing, and moiré effects. Black levels are nice and deep, and the palette – whilst somewhat on the cool side of the spectrum – is sufficient to render all of the action faithfully without seeming overly restrictive. (However, it's only at the very end that we're presented with the brightest daytime scene in the entire film.)
This is a film that – as is pretty much made obligatory by its very premise – plays some very clever (and often extremely subtle) tricks with surrealism in video. Most of these special effects operate from a mirror motif, and the first time you view Into the Mirror you will probably miss the bulk of them, as they are so perfectly executed and seamlessly integrated into the universe it has created. Frankly, even if the film didn't stand strongly on its non-technical merits (which naturally it does), it would still bear rewatching if only to enjoy the additional visual details that come across the more times you see it. In fact, despite acknowledging the benefits of advanced CGI, motion control cameras, and modern digital editing, certain scenes still fall directly into the 'Just how the hell did they do that?' category. This is particularly true of the 'mirror murder' segments, each of which sets out to conquer a different special effect that had never been successfully employed in film before.
The first disc of this Special Edition contains no fewer than four audio tracks: the 'common denominator' (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), a far more expansive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack, the ever-desirable 'DTS Digital Surround 5.1' presentation for those viewers with a DTS decoder (alas, not me), and a full-length director's commentary (more on which later). For the purposes of this review, I only randomly sampled the Dolby stereo track to check for consistency, and then watched the entire film with the Dolby surround audio and then again with the commentary track active.
The DD 5.1 kicks in from the first second of the initial studio ident and never quits. Just as you'd hope, the rear soundstage is fairly active, inserting sinister noises that are just the wrong side of identifiability to keep you on your toes throughout the presentation. Furthermore, the music in this film is well-conceived – sufficiently atmospheric to support the primary action without overwhelming it, and with a very rich sound that takes advantage of the possibilities of a DD 5.1-capable speaker system. While naturally the use of sound is more accentual than emphatic (this film lacking too many 'big action scenes' that would call for powerful effects), I personally found it quite satisfying and appropriate for a horror film.
Both discs feature a creepy and nicely designed fully-animated main menu employing a 'mirror' theme accompanied by atmospheric music on a brief loop. There are appropriate transition effects provided between all of the sub-menus, which on the first disc include a static one-page 'Scene Selection' screen with 16 chapter breaks, a 'Set-Up Options' menu covering the three audio options and optional English subtitles (necessary as the AUDIO and SUBTITLES buttons on your DVD player's remote have been locked out by this disc), and the 'Extra Features' page.
Very important for any foreign-language film is the question of whether or not all of the special features provide an option for English subtitles; fortunately, as this is a domestic R2 release by Tartan, those of you who don't speak Korean can put your minds at ease… subs are available for every single extra on this 2-disc set.
The special features on disc 1 are limited to the option which toggles the director's commentary on/off and the ability to view the original theatrical trailer (gripping and illustrative of just what a horror film trailer should be, clocking in at just under two and a half minutes in length), as the rest of the extras are included on the second disc.
Obviously a quite substantial (and always welcome) addition to any Special Edition DVD is a feature-length commentary, and Tartan has been naturally provided one with this latest release, highlighting the director's own perspective and insights on the film. Kim Sung-ho may seem soft-spoken on this commentary track, but there is a certain intensity behind his voice as he explores both the initial concepts behind the film as well as delving into some of the more technical aspects, particularly how many of the key scenes were filmed. Nor need you fear that the lack of any of the cast (or indeed the presence of any other person) on the commentary will cause it to be overly sparse and filled with those long patches of 'dead air' that often plague such efforts; here we have a man who not only has a lot to say about the film, but who paces himself well and keeps the information flowing freely throughout. There are naturally a few quiet bits here and there, but it remains a fairly engaging commentary regardless.
He's particularly good at highlighting all of the places where the cast and (especially) the production team had to go to great efforts to achieve a given special effect, and there's also a refreshing amount of honesty – or perhaps I should say 'absence of obfuscation' – in his spiel. Unlike many directors who would rather have the audience continue to marvel and puzzle at how the more impressive segments were constructed, Sung-ho actually takes pains to point out the precise moments when shots were cut and composited, where visual inconsistencies (despite their best efforts) snuck in, as well as all of the places where it became necessary to use CGI in order to bridge between mundane reality and the 'mirror world' of the film.
Also making a change from the style of most Western commentaries, the one on this DVD isn't particularly anecdotal, and in fact when Sung-ho isn't actively discussing the symbolism and special effects work, he's usually giving us a very direct 'blow-by-blow' explanation of everything that's happening on-screen, including the motivations and backstory of all of the characters in the film. That said, however, there are a few places where he recounts actual events during the four-month production, including the one day he was sick (inconveniently the same day the second 'mirror murder' scene was scheduled to be filmed), the difficulties convincing any actual department store to allow them to film a horror movie on their premises, etc. (For the curious, not a single store in Seoul would permit it, so they had to leave the capital to find a willing location.)
There is a good spread of additional special features provided on the second disc in this set. The largest item has to be the full-length film-to-storyboards comparison. Including the original production storyboards on multi-disc DVD releases is increasing in popularity nowadays, and it's good to see that this type of extra is becoming more sophisticated as time wears on. Here we have the widescreen storyboards filling the TV screen with the actual final film running in an inset window at lower right. Also, unlike certain storyboards on DVD which completely forget to include an option to view English subtitles whilst watching them (though mostly it's animé that runs afoul of this), this disc not only enables optional subs which you can turn on or off on the fly, but also is sensible enough to shift them to occupy the lower left-hand corner of the screen, so they don't interfere with the inset film window.
Also quite generous is the behind the scenes section, which is broken down into six specific video segments: 'Thoughts from the Director' (the largest by far at over 35 minutes running time, and featuring an edited interview with director Kim Sung-ho), 'The Story' (a piece of promo fluff clocking in at 2.5 minutes), 'Two Selves' (a more interesting examination of how the sets were constructed for each of the 'mirror murders', about 6.75 minutes long), 'Reality & Reflection' (containing more production/set-design details, but also some psychological discussion, at approximately 12 minutes in length), 'The World in the Mirror' (more discussion of the symbolism, intercut with quite a few clips from the actual film, about 8.75 minutes long), and 'Making the Film' (much more what most of us in the West would consider proper BTS material, with plenty of clips of the actors larking about between takes, at 14 minutes in length).
Somewhat underwhelming are the 9 minutes of deleted scenes, especially in light of the fact that Kim Sung-ho mentions in the commentary that quite a lot of material (especially scenes which help to develop the backstory of certain supporting characters) was omitted from the final cut of the film. It would have been nice if those segments had been made available on this DVD, but as the five deleted scenes here appear to be precisely the same as the ones included on the previous R3 (Korean) release, this may indicate that none of the other cuts survived from post-production.
There is also a very bizarre 3-minute music video (Cherry Filter: Blood of Witch) created from brief clips of film; it must be a Korean thing, because seeing it beforehand wouldn't have precisely made me rush out to catch the film in the cinema. Finally, there's a 30-second TV spot which is vastly inferior to the theatrical trailer provided on disc 1.
Into the Mirror is unique not only from a technical standpoint, but also stands out from the recent popular flood of modern Korean horror as being one of those rare films that is less obsessed with the standard 'shock and gore' tactics so common to the overall genre, but which instead treads the more quiet path of intellectual horror. Of course, choosing this course will inevitably cause some traditionalists to complain that the film 'just isn't scary enough'. For me, this isn't a drawback as I find a little bit of gore/suspense goes a long way, and I much preferred Into the Mirror to other cinematic offerings of the same vintage, such as A Tale of Two Sisters, which were decidedly more graphic.
The actual police procedural aspect of this film isn't particularly convoluted, so those of you who want a meaty detective story may go away slightly disappointed. But if you're looking for a solid horror/crime thriller hybrid that encourages you to ponder rather than merely jump out of your seat, and one that moreover features exceptional production design and competent acting, look no further. This 2-disc SE release by Tartan does the title proud with superb extras, excellent audio, and perfectly serviceable picture quality. Definitely recommended viewing.