Thursday, February 4, 2010

In short: 4th Period Mystery (2009)

Fun times at a South Korean highschool. Just two weeks before the main plot of the film takes place, a student nearly died from poison. The headmaster, in a fashion completely fitting the "school is hell" concept every single South Korean movie taking place in a highschool follows, elegantly swept the little problem under the carpet.

Now, "number one student in the country" (although you wouldn't believe that one), heartthrob and professional nice guy Han Jeong-hoon (Yoo Seung-ho) finds the knifed corpse of school bully and professional rude guy Kim Tae-gyoo (Jo Sang-geun) lying in their classroom. Unfortunately for Jeong-hoon, he has had more than one violent argument with the dear deceased. There's even a nice handy photo of him threatening Tae-gyoo with the murder weapon, a pocket knife. Under these circumstances Jeong-hoon is lucky in that firstly, the classroom where the body is situated won't be in use for the next period and that secondly the person finding him with the corpse is Lee Dae-jeong (Kang So-ra).

Dae-jeong is the class geek. Usually hiding her face behind a curtain of hair, she spends all her time (and I really mean all her time) reading true crime books. After quickly taking the measure of the situation, the girl convinces Jeong-hoon that his only chance not to pay for a crime he didn't commit is for the pair of them to find the true killer before the period is over.

The girl takes out her junior-FBI woman kit (yes, I know that South Korean police isn't structured like that) and goes to work. There are quite a lot of suspects to deal with in the short time available. Especially the teachers are all highly interesting, be it prettyboy "MBC" (Jeon Joon-hong) or official crazy teacher "Crazy Dog" (Park Cheol-min). Still, there's always time for romance.

Lee Sang-yong's directorial debut 4th Period Mystery is a fast-paced and entertaining mystery, as the set-up and the title (sources tell me that the correct translation of its title would be "40 Minute Detectives") promise. It isn't a very deep or thoughtful film, though. Lee, who is also responsible for the script, puts most of his energy into keeping the pace up, letting possibilities to deepen the characters or making the mystery at its core more interesting or more poignant instead of just making it more complicated pass by.

The characters, while aptly played, are mostly cardboard cut-outs who are given just enough life to function as parts of the plot. They, as does the whole script, do exactly what they are there for, nothing more, yet also nothing less.

The same can be said about the rest of the movie. 4th Period Mystery is exactly what it promises to be at first sight - a slick, professional piece of filmmaking that wants to entertain its viewers with a slight murder mystery while making a handful of satirical observations of school life when it finds the time for them. This might not be enough for some viewers, and I would even have expected to be among them, yet I couldn't help but enjoy the ride. As much as I might protest it, sometimes a superficial but professionally made film is enough for me, especially when the film under discussion has no pretensions of being more. Call it my temporary capitulation before craftsmanship, if you like.


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