"Listen carefully... From this moment, your power, your money and your connections are all useless...
For the next 90 minutes, something very interesting will happen... You just do what you're told..."
Sang-hee (Joo Sang-wook) is a director of commercials whose desire to further his career is equalled only by his lust for illicit sexual encounters his increasingly powerful position in the media industry allows. Married to Jeong-kyeong (Jo Kyeong-min) - the daughter of a large corporation's CEO - with whom he has a daughter, Sang-hee is nonetheless not only having an affair with his father-in-law's young wife but is also all too happy to take sexual advantage of any would-be actresses in return for a 'hollow' promise of a career, and almost makes a point of 'indulging himself' at any media parties at which there are willing female escorts that he can use, abuse and discard.
On the eve of taking a big step forward in his career, Sang-hee is on his way home to have a celebratory dinner with his family when he receives a phone call from a woman calling herself Hye-ri (Jang Mi-ne), offering him a sexual encounter as payment for a 'debt' (supposedly at the behest of one of his bosses) and he is frankly so intoxicated by her overt come-ons that it's impossible for him to refuse.
However, shortly after their no holds barred sexual dalliance, Hye-ri (again by phone) delivers Sang-hee an ultimatum: Either he does exactly what she tells him to for the next 90 minutes or she'll make public a video of their 'sexcapades'; destroying everything he cares about and all he has worked for, in one fell swoop. Again, Sang-hee finds he has no option but to agree to her demands and from that very moment Hye-ri's twisted cat and mouse game of power, humiliation and retribution begins...
The early stages of '90 Minutes' quickly and deftly outline who Sang-hee is as a person - both visually by showing him repeatedly whizzing around in his flash Mercedes, always dressed to the nines in a dapper suit and with an ever-confident smile; and by means of numerous instances of dialogue between himself, often seemingly fawning work colleagues or indeed bickering family members - and while it could be said that background details contained within these conversations are deliberately expositional (and let's face it, they are, unashamedly so) they never feel faked or contrived; appearing instead as natural statements underlining the outward state of play in specific situations and the perceived balance of power within each.
However, vital though these 'insights' (in advance of the aforementioned cat and mouse game) are in bringing viewers up to speed on Sang-hee's background, his relationships with extended family members, his attitude towards people in general and women in particular as well as the ease with which he ensnares vulnerable female conquests, it is one short flashback to his time with Bo-ra (Shin Na-ri) - the only woman to whom he's said the words "I love you" - that is both the most telling of all and the most necessary to forthcoming events:
While Sang-hee is largely dismissive of anyone's needs or feelings unless they happen to fit with his own self-serving purposes, the one person who stands as an exception is Bo-ra and though he refuses any request from her to visit or see her, he nonetheless will have nothing said against her. We're not told - nor is it important we know - the full reason she and Sang-hee are no longer together, but clearly as much as his obvious continuing (yet unspoken) feelings for her show heart beneath heartlessness, caring beneath coldness, they also point to the fact that Bo-ra is ultimately Sang-hee's Achilles heel should anyone with an axe to grind and a desire to bring him to his knees put the pieces of the puzzle together. And that, hopefully smoothly enough, brings me to the altogether mysterious, sexy lady determined to grind that very axe; Hye-ri:
For the vast majority of 90 Minutes' running time, we - like Sang-hee - are unaware of what's driving Hye-ri to take revenge in the name of the women he's wronged and/or womankind as a whole but the fact that she has intimate knowledge of his numerous indiscretions and sexual abuses - allowing her to both stay one step ahead of him and have an answer for each and every one of his arguments and protestations - is hinted at from her very first interactions with him. In the aforementioned flashback scene to Bo-ra's time with Sang-hee, Bo-ra mentions that she loves the smell of Shea Butter on his skin before asking him to tell her that he loves her - two things that Hye-ri exactly mimics during their brief sexual liaison and though Sang-hee is noticeably shaken by the similarities of Hye-ri's statements to Bo-ra's words, he lets them pass as just coincidence; thereby showing that Sang-hee's self-confidence and belief that he's untouchable and smart enough to get away with anything aren't anywhere as well placed as he'd like to think. Not only that, but Hye-ri during sex caresses Sang-hee's body and, when asked what she's doing, replies "Just looking for Samson's hair". That statement in essence sums up '90 Minutes' to a tee: In an analogous sense, Hye-ri is Delilah to Sang-hee's Samson; a woman who will use her feminine wiles, mental strength and intelligence to run rings around a man who believes he's indestructible, stealing his power one clump of hair (if you will) - one humiliation - at a time.
In recent years in Korean cinema, there has been an increasing and to my mind much needed trend of narratives featuring depictions of stronger female characters than has ever really previously been the case and while this is without question a positive move away from stories that could be deemed inherently misogynistic - eg: certain directors (who shall not be named here but who are obvious, nonetheless) having often gone to seemingly great lengths over the years to deliberately place female characters in situations of extreme suffering - these newer depictions of female strength have largely shown women becoming strong only as a necessary last-resort fight back against male oppression and injustice. In the case of '90 Minutes', though a number of the female characters have suffered, and do, the inclusion of their pain and/or abuse is far more to give context and justification to the humiliation and retribution exacted on Sang-hee than to show their suffering per se, and as far as the characterisation of Hye-ri is concerned we have a woman as psychologically strong as any man choosing to make him (and, by extrapolation, mankind) pay for her own reasons and purposes, clearly without having suffered herself.
Of course, the full story of Hye-ri's revenge against Sang-hee, when eventually revealed, isn't as simple as female strength against male oppression but for a large part of the film it feels as such, nonetheless, and that to my mind is both refreshing for Korean cinema as a whole and even at times frankly intoxicating.
It could even be said that considering the fact there have been a number of Korean films of late detailing the failure of the legal system to adequately punish male perpetrators of sexual crimes within the entertainment industry, Sang-hee's abuses being facilitated by his position of power within a media conglomerate allow for the retribution exacted against him to stand as a fictional (if brutal) catharsis of those failures, but while such an assertion in itself raises the question of the moral implications of taking justice into one's own hands, that I feel is a discussion for another day.
As a final note on this idea and theme, there is just one segment in '90 Minutes' where I felt Hye-ri's actions stepped a little too far into callousness - in the wake of her statement "Why should I care what happens to anyone connected to you?" However, with a tiny coda scene just prior to the closing credits, director Park Sun-uk successfully belays any such misgivings; deftly adding a further discussion-worthy layer to the overall narrative, in the process.
Cinematically, '90 Minutes' is accomplished throughout. Pacing is brisk but never rushed, perfectly building in tandem with the narrative tension, while visually the sexually oriented scenes especially look utterly sumptuous.
And speaking of which, it almost goes without saying that within a sexually-charged story such as this the graphic nature of, and sexual content within, the film's 'adult' scenes is fairly explicit on more than one occasion. However, in my opinion this level of explicitness is not only warranted but necessary to the scenes' believability and in terms of the sexual liaison between Sang-hee and Hye-ri its almost palpable eroticism perfectly underlines Sang-hee's utter inability to refuse Hye-ri's sexual demands.
Cast: Joo Sang-wook, Jang Mi-ne, Ko Jeong-min, Shin Na-ri, Kim Tae-jeong
Directed by: Park Sun-uk
With its pulse-pounding, sexually-charged story detailing female retribution against a self-serving male guilty of flagrant sexual indiscretions and abuses, '90 Minutes' not only stands as an utterly gripping thriller but also serves to further the ongoing trend for depictions of strong women in Korean cinema, as a whole.