"I don't want to be here alone anymore. She came today... Yeo-sun came home again... I saw her.
I'm so scared, honey! My dead daughter has been coming home for a week."
When her step-mother Kyung-hee (Kim Yun-jin) fails to pick her up from school, Yeo-sun (Kim Sae-ron) begins the journey back to her apartment block alone. She doesn't make it home; her battered body being discovered ten days later in the same area that another female murder victim was previously found, but while the likelihood that both murders are the work of a serial killer strikes fear into almost everyone in the neighbourhood they nonetheless remain largely apathetic to anyone's plight but their own.
However, little do they realise that the killer, Song-yoon (Do Ji-han), is actually in their very midst living in the same apartment block as Yeo-sun's family and, having subsequently seen another little girl who bears a striking resemblance to Yeo-sun (also played by Kim Sae-ron), he is set to strike again...
In the wake of Yeo-sun's death, Neighbors - based on a web comic written by Kang Pool - deals with numerous main character threads within the overall story of the individual fears and communal apathy of a neighbourhood terrorized by a serial killer. Of these, the four most prevalent, and ultimately interlocking, are:
Yeo-sun's step-mother Kyung-hee who is consumed by guilt and self-blame both for failing to pick Yeo-sun up from school (thereby believing herself to be almost as responsible for the little girl’s death as even the killer) and for never truly having been able to bond with her step-daughter, as she so desperately wanted to;
The caretaker of the apartment block who has been on the run for almost 15 years and fears any police involvement in the search for the killer will reveal the dark and violent secrets of his past;
The local loan shark/gangster who is treated with disdain and suspicion by the entire community;
And, of course, the killer himself who has no focus whatsoever in his life aside from his desire to kill interminably.
As such, within the fears of and eventual attempts to stop the killer, director Kim Hwi uses these individual character arcs to comment on themes of guilt, selfishness and the difficulty of self-forgiveness; on whichever side of the fence an individual lays.
Neighbors begins strongly in the vein of classic serial killer tales - Yeo-sun's fateful, and ultimately fatal, journey detailed in a suitably tense manner and accentuated throughout by a gorgeously ominous musical score - but within just a few moments a stunning scene showing (dead) Yeo-sun returning home wet, soiled and bedraggled to her utterly petrified step-mother clearly points to Kim Hwi's determination not to simply retread familiar serial killer genre terrain. However, chilling and incredibly effective though this small scene is - exposited with the on-screen written tagline "My dead daughter has been coming home for a week" - and in spite of the fact that it allows for an early referencing of the aforementioned themes that become far more prevalent later in proceedings, its appearance underlines what is to my mind one of the problems with the film as a whole: For Neighbors is less than sure of what it's ultimately trying to be and rather than the presence of copious separate genre elements enabling the film to be all things to all people their inclusion instead gives the feeling of a narrative that is on more than one occasion cluttered, and perhaps even slightly schizophrenic.
Of course, genre merging is a vital, integral part of numerous seminal Korean films but in the case of Neighbors there is somewhat of a tendency to bounce between rather than morph from one genre to another - at one point horror movie; at another gangster film; through melodrama and even cathartic journey of the soul, all within a fairly standard serial killer tale. Not only that, but in the case of the ghostly apparition/horror element, for example, it is (seemingly) summarily dropped at a fairly early stage only to be suddenly resurrected (if you will) at a point where it had been all but forgotten.
Taken on their own, the various genre elements actually work rather well and I repeatedly found myself hoping against hope that Neighbors had finally gotten into its stride but contrivances, both in the context of narrative and character, more than once pulled me out of the immersion I had temporarily found.
While I'm grateful that Neighbors doesn't feature a renegade detective - the police barely appear in the film; again an worthy step away from the 'norm' - the apartment complex caretaker/security guard on the run while hiding a dark past is almost as predictable, and this along with several other forced elements are to my mind present for one reason and one reason only; to specifically allow for the thematic dissection of guilt and its psychological consequences, almost as asides to the story itself.
Ultimately, while the grief-induced guilt felt by Yeo-sun's step-mother as a result of what she feels she failed to do - personified by the appearance of Yeo-sun as an apparition - is both understandable and believable, the concluding narrative implication relating to the killer is far harder to accept; regardless of it too being shrouded in seemingly ghostly proceedings.
Kim Eun-jin, Kim Sae-ron, Do Ji-han, Ma Dong-seok
The entire cast give exemplary performances throughout Neighbors and though singling out specific actors and actresses for praise within such a top-notch ensemble is a difficult task, note must surely be made of Kim Yun-jin’s heartfelt portrayal of Kyung-hee; Ma Dong-seok as the loan shark; and Kim Sae-ron as schoolgirl Yeo-sun and her ‘identical’ neighbour. Their combined portrayals certainly make Neighbors worth watching, in spite of the aforementioned criticisms.
While Korean cinema is well known for its ability to deftly merge genres, in ‘Neighbors’ their mixing with a multitude of individual character stories results in a film that, though interesting, feels rather cluttered and even schizophrenic on more than one occasion.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) Eos Limited Edition First Press version. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 and is well balanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
- Director: Kim Hwi
- Language: Korean
- Subtitles: English, Korean
- Country: South Korea
- Picture Format: NTSC
- Disc Format: DVD (One Disc)
- Region Code: 3
- Publisher: Eos
- ‘Making of’ Featurette
- Interview with actress Kim Yun-jin