Tell Me Something Review
It’s Summer 1999. Detective Cho (Han Suk-kyu) has recently lost his mother; internal affairs are on his back and fellow workers are talking bad about him in light of some rather unusual facts surfacing. Meanwhile black bin bags have begun to turn up in various places around Seoul, each one containing severed limbs that have been surgically removed with amazing skill. Somehow these bodies connect to each other – not in the obvious way mind you. As the investigation mounts Cho and his partner Oh (Jang Hang-seon) discover that the three male victims share one thing in common – they all had relationships with a woman named Chae Su-yeon (Shim Eun-ah), and now she might just be the next target.
Whilst Shiri certainly kick-started the Korean cinema resurgence, with a new wave of directors surfacing, several other notable features headlined 1999; one of them being Chang Yoon-hyun’s Tell Me Something, a “hard gore thriller” as the director so eloquently puts it on the disc’s supplemental material. The film became a smash hit in its homeland, yet never really got enough outside attention; it’s somewhat curious that we’re seeing it six years later in the UK, and it’s hard to believe that it’s that old already. Nevertheless it hasn’t lost any of its potency.
Of course it wasn’t the first and nor would it be the last thriller to use the tried and tested clichés: dark, wet alleyways, twists and turns, silly plot points, but at least it retained a great sense of style. Yoon-hyun’s feature obviously wears its influences on its sleeve, being highly reminiscent of David Fincher’s Seven and Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. (Barry Norman mode) And why not? After all both films were huge and considered modern masterpieces, so it didn’t seem too strange for Korea to get in on the act and produce something that would instantly appeal to all mainstream audiences. Tell Me Something even carries with it a baggage of western music, that ranges from Placebo to Enya, and what’s more they’re eerily effective throughout. Enya’s “Boadicea” becomes integral in creating an emotional hook during a revealing scene much later on in the film, while Placebo’s “The Crawl” has that unsettling approach, even if it’s a bit presumptuous to imply that serial killers enjoy listening to Placebo, not that they’re bad of course. Placebo that is.
Sticking with unsettling, where it differs to the likes of Seven, this shows the gory details taking place (or rather some prolongued scalple work), rather than leaving us with just the after effects. Fincher’s reveals were ultimately shocking and while Tell Me Something’s might not be as biblically intriguing they nonetheless have a tendency to unravel the nerves as human dissections take place on a cold operating table, with victims merely knocked out by chloroform. Indeed Tell Me Something is quite depraved in itself, designed to get the audience squirming, to make them feel truly terrified with its voyeuristic approach to these horrific acts of surgery, whilst looking very convincing in the process. Yoon-hyun doesn’t shy away from visceral imagery, he thrives on it, and although there may not be too many examples to toy with he makes the most of each set up; when he wants a blood bath he gets it. And the concept itself is quite original, taking the puzzle element and adding a decent spin on the serial killer’s actions and motives. Amidst this it even has time to throw in a couple of taboo issues.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Incest and homosexuality play large parts in the film and they’re not just shock devices, but actual aids. Yoon-hyun could quite easily exploit these issues but rather commendably he works around them, never becoming too fierce with the material. It could be argued that perhaps he should, but then there’s no real need as he makes his point and he sets up motive. In themselves they’re quite depressing and lend a certain freshness when it comes to their intended implementation.|
So with Tell Me Something already scoring big with its atmospheric approach and attention to certain details it has a script to contend with, and quite a convoluted one at that. However the film seems to handle multiple plot strands fairly well; granted it’s a bit of a patchwork quilt, with the patchy bits being minor plot holes, or simply dumb moments which force the audience to question things like:
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Cho’s mother’s medical bills being paid for by a criminal, along with details of his previous case, which seems to amount to taking bribes, but is never fully explained. Cho giving his only gun to a person and then visiting a killer’s den, or Detective Oh entering a killer’s den all alone. But then Oh’s fate is sealed from the start, it’s one of those clichés that’s put to less effective use: best friend, has a daughter, seems happy, his partner is Han Suk-kyu = dead. And of course there are plot points concerning Su-yeon and Seung-min, time frame and whereabouts, not to mention possible contradictions.|
Furthermore I should warn the reader that Tell Me Something is something of a slow burner. There are long slogs which concentrate on Cho and Su-yeon’s relationship, or rather the bulk of the investigation that asks a lot of who’s, why’s and where’s. Considering the leads here though it’s an entirely bearable part of the film, and the middle portion serves up a lot of exposition whilst being mainly confined to a couple of environments.
Han Suk-kyu had a fantastic run in the late 90’s with hits such as Green Fish, No.3, Christmas in August and Shiri, which sealed his reputation as being one of South Korea’s finest actors. He finished the decade with Tell Me Something, showing his diversity when it came to tackling multiple genres, and proving that he could indeed take on any role. Of course now he was even more comfortable, having previously worked alongside Yoon-hyun for the director’s debut feature The Contact, while for the beautiful Christmas in August he was paired with Shim Eun-ah providing an on-screen chemistry which no doubt became an important factor for Yoon-hyun when casting his second feature. As usual Suk-kyu doesn’t disappoint; he’s a very commanding actor whose performance here is largely understated. This is a scarred man, still troubled by his mother’s passing and the ridicule from particular officers. Suk-kyu handles the challenge with a certain restraint, only lashing out when prompted, and has that uncanny ability to get audiences sympathising with him on the basis of a simple look. Naturally Eun-ha is a suitable match in terms of providing a strong emotional balance, while handling all the twists that’s thrown at her remarkably well.
Tartan presents Tell Me Something on a decent disc, that’s the best I can do. While the film is anamorphically enhanced in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio it’s yet another NTSC-PAL effort, complete with a spot of shimmering, aliasing and Edge Enhancement. I have decided to include a comparison next to Spectrum’s 2001 Korean release, which highlights a couple of other slight differences. Although Spectrum’s disc is non-anamorphic and non-progressive, colour levels are natural, although contrast is slightly high, but to be fair the Spectrum disc also includes the same shimmering patterns and aliasing; these would appear to be sourced from identical prints, being otherwise identical in terms of detail. Tartan has gone a little further though in the boosting, with noticeable changes to contrast and colours, as can be seen in the following grabs:
Tartan also carries over Korean Dolby Digital 2.0, Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Korean DTS Surround. I went for DTS, and aside from have a meatier bass it doesn’t greatly differ from the standard 5.1 option. However this is a suitably atmospheric track, despite a few ambient moments feeling a little forced. Lots of rain = some effective moments though, and some of the set pieces such as car chases and the gruesome discoveries carry some nice weight. Elsewhere, Bang Jun-Seok and Jo Yeong-wook’s score creeps in nicely from time to time, while dialogue doesn’t seem to pose any problems either.
Optional English subtitles are included. These are well timed and free from grammatical errors, but scenes features detectives taking notes or looking at them are not translated.
This is one of Tartan’s lighter Asia Extreme releases. The main extra is a making-of feature that runs for just over eight minutes. This takes us through several chapters, looking at the gore effects, taking us behind the scenes during wet shoots, and finishing up with an interview from director Lee. A spoiler intense music video accompanied by Placebo follows next, with the two minute theatrical trailer round off the package.
Despite the occasional contrivance Tell Me Something is a solid thriller and one of South Korea’s better efforts, which sits comfortably with the likes of Public Enemy and Memories of Murder - maybe a couple of steps down the ladder – but a good experience all the same. Gore hounds should lap up the few moments of in-your-face carving, while those seeking an intellectual resolve might find their brains working overtime. So while it’s a little late coming, Tartan’s release is well worth checking out, considering that at the moment you won't be finding much better regarding the transfer. It’s unfortunate that we don’t get many extras, but then neither did Korea.