Cho Kyu-Jang’s cat-and-mouse thriller is definitely one of my favourites from this year’s London Korean Film Festival. The film follows businessman Sang-hoon as he drunkenly returns to his apartment one evening, only to witness a horrific murder right outside his complex. Before he has a chance to call for help, the killer looks up, and the two make eye contact. Paralysed by fear, he chooses not to report the crime to protect himself and family.
The next two hours are a high-octane adrenaline rush as Sang-hoon becomes closer to the case than he would’ve liked. It’s not a proper thriller without some kind of quirky, hard-boiled detective, and The Witness delivers that in the form of Jae-yeop. He’s got his heart set on bringing the killer to justice, and doesn’t have time for Sang-hoon and his reluctance to answer any questions. Throughout the film, you find yourself becoming frustrated by Sang-hoon too, even though you can understand why he was concerned he and his family would be next on the hit list if he went to the police. It’s not a situation you’d wish on anyone, quite frankly.
The Witness is incredibly fast paced, and keeps you on edge the whole time. It’s full of chase scenes, very bloody moments, and genuine jumpy scenes. As a large part of the film is set within one apartment block, I saw similarities to the iconic Indonesian thriller The Raid. There’s something so eerie about someone breaking in to the top floors of an apartment block, because there’s no way out. It takes home invasion to a new, higher level. I loved the decision to set it here instead of a standard, semi-detached house, as it makes for a more claustrophobic and heart-pounding experience. Expect twists, turns, and moments that keep you on the edge of your seat. You’ll want to get out of that apartment as fast as humanly possible.
The killer is ruthless and tracks down his victims by any means, making him an incredibly harrowing and dangerous character. What’s more, he doesn’t say a word: Michael Myers style. Despite seeing his face in the first ten minutes of the film, when he sees Sang-hoon, he’s still utterly terrifying. He’s the kind of person you’d walk past on the street, a normal guy, but has absolutely no remorse or compassion. His weapon of choice is a hammer, so he prefers close contact. You really hear every blow throughout the film, which made me cringe quite a bit. Cho Kyu-Jan wants us to witness everything for ourselves, and there’s no holding back. Being in the front row during this screening was an intense experience!
It’s hard to reflect on The Witness too much otherwise I might risk spoiling it, but it’s one of the strongest thrillers I’ve seen all year. Lee Sung-min is fantastic in the leading role, with Kim Sang-ho complementing his performance as a detective who wants to crack this case no matter what it takes. It’s up there with any mainstream Hollywood thriller you might watch, so I honestly can’t recommend this film enough. Despite the presence of classic thriller tropes we all know and love, it’s a fresh, intelligent entry to the genre which keeps you guessing til the very end.
If you need more convincing, you can watch the trailer below. Unfortunately I couldn’t find one with English subtitles, but you’ll get the idea…