The Korean psychological thriller Bluebeard has enough plot threads, swerves, twists, and fake outs to fill more than just a single film, but there are so many that the effect in a single movie is numbing and dull. Technically, once the ending arrives and all is revealed things will make sense, but it’s a slog to get there and even though it all adds up (more or less), so much has happened and so much energy and momentum has been expended that it all comes across as silly instead of intelligent.
Dr. Byun Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-Woong, quite good in a demanding performance) has become a physical and emotional wreck. He’s barely sleeping thanks to a recent split from an ex-wife he seems unable to move on from. He lost his cushy job in Gangham and has now moved to the more working class borough of Hwajung City, performing colonoscopies at a busy internal medicine clinic. With his once well-to-do lifestyle behind him, he now lives in a cramped loft above a butcher shop. One day while performing a colonoscopy on his sedated and possibly senile elderly landlord, Dr. Byun hears what he believes to be a murder confession. The perceived confession could be tied to recent reports of severed body parts washing ashore following the spring thaw of the Han River, but then again, people say a lot of weird stuff while they’re knocked out for a colonoscopy (apparently everyone does in this world). Dr. Byun begins to suspect that the old man and his adult son are serial killers, so he begins assembling proof to back up his theory, including the discovery of a severed human head in the butcher shop. It’s proof that will also shed light on Dr. Byun’s currently tenuous state of mental well being.
Bluebeard is the first feature from South Korean writer-director Lee Soo-youn since his well received debut feature The Uninvited back in 2003, and it bears all the “swing for the fences” hallmarks of someone worried they might never work again. Relying heavily on every trick from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook, Soo-youn tries mightily to infuse every sequence with as many dangling threads as possible. For the first 80 minutes of Bluebeard, it’s hard to tell if what the viewer is seeing is real or if it’s a dream. Dr. Byun could be making this entire thing up in his head, and his own tragic circumstances are manifesting themselves as waking nightmares. Indeed, Bluebeard has about half a dozen or more jump scare moments of Dr. Byun suddenly awakening in a panic than any film should have. There are so many “it was only a dream” moments that the Freddy Krueger would tell Soo-youn to cool it.
Bluebeard also wants to tell an elaborate serial killer story and mental collapse parable with a bunch of different subtexts that it introduces but never follows through on. At various points Soo-youn goes out of his way to tie the story into asides about class relations, meat eating, health care, surveillance culture, global warming, sexual equality, drug addiction, and consumerism. The dense plotting of Bluebeard is so much that these themes barely register, and distract from a character piece that already demands 100% of the viewer’s attention. It’s much too much, and this says nothing about subplots involving Dr. Byun trying to earn enough money to send his son to camp in Canada for the summer or one involving a pretty young nurse (Lee Chung-Ah) smuggling drugs out of the clinic to sell on the black market.
In the end everything makes sense and it ties together, but it builds to a twenty minute long climax where police investigators explain to the viewers and to Dr. Byun everything that happened. It’s such a massive dump of exposition and explanation that I didn’t care at that point to hear almost any of it. It was such a slow build to get to such a point that I couldn’t help but feel that a bit more ambiguity and a lot less plot would have made Bluebeard a lot more entertaining and creepy. The finale of Bluebeard is the explanation at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho taken to lengthy, borderline unbearable extremes. Bluebeard has style, great performances, and a kernel of an idea for a decent potboiler, but it never justifies its own needless complications.
Also, a strange side note: if you want to see Bluebeard, don’t look at the poster. The poster gives the whole thing away with the tagline. I’m glad I saw the film without seeing the poster because if I sat through something as needlessly convoluted as Bluebeard and the ending was spoiled for me like that, I would have been livid.