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Original Title:

South Korea 2001

Thriller, Drama

Bae Chang-ho

Lee Jung-jae
Lee Mi-yeon
Ahn Sung-kee
Lee Ki-yeong
Jeong Jun-ho
Kang Seong-jin

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Last Witness

Story: Detective Oh (Lee Jung-jae) doesn't think much of sticking to the rules, but his aggressive character could pose a problem when it comes to his newest case. At first the case simply seems to be about a murder of a drug-addict with the name Yang Dal-su (Lee Ki-yeong). Another murder case allows the detective to make some new connections, though. Yang has hunted North Korean communists during the Korean War. Oh gets his hands on an old diary from the former communist Son Ji-hye (Lee Mi-yeon) in which she describes in detail what happened during the first half of the 50s. Ji-hye was in love with the communist Hwang-seok (Ahn Sung-kee) at that time who eventually went to prison for fifty years because he wouldn't renounce his ideology. Recently Hwang-seok has finally been released from jail and so he seems to be the obvious suspect in the case. Detective Oh meets Ji-hye in order to get more information about the events in the fifties as he doesn't believe in Hwang-seok's guilt.

Review: As many other Korean thrillers "Last Witness" revolves around the Korean War and the suffering that the seperation of a country into North and South brought along with it even many years later. The story which is based on a novel by Kim Seong-jong has already been made into a movie in 1980, but director Bae Chang-ho tries to spruce up the thriller to look like the blockbuster hit "Shiri". He doesn't really succeed in doing that. That the film has some serious issues with the many flashbacks and the alternating pace becomes pretty obvious very soon. Apparently that's just the reason why Bae tried to work some action scenes into his movie so that the viewer's interest is kept maintained. In the end this simply makes the movie a strange action-drama-thriller that's neither fish nor fowl.

"Last Witness" creates completely different expectations in the beginning. The action scenes during the prelude, that show detective Oh as a cool cop who could whip any gang turf into shape on his own, have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film. This is a cheap trick, but the viewer still feels thrown right into the action and is excited to know how the case might evolve. However, there isn't anything like a real investigation, at least none that could be considered thrilling. Far too often the murder case investigation heads into no direction and no one seems to really know what he is supposed to do. Instead we are suddenly thrown into the past and from that point on almost half of the movie takes place during the fifties as things turn out.

That's pretty odd and cuts the movie into several small chapters that are only loosely woven into one another. The red thread is constantly lost sight of and the bad editing of the movie also doesn't really add to us being eager to know what everything is about. Eventually this leads to a certain distance built up between us and the characters, thus we can never gain real access to the drama within in the movie. Reason for that is also a pretty pathetic tone that more or less runs through the whole movie. This is even brought to the extreme by a soundtrack that is used in a too manipulative way, suddenly kicking in as if pressing a button every time a scene becomes more emotional. Children are seperated from their families, lovers torn apart and all of this in the name of ideology. In "Last Witness" we can only roll our eyes about this. And that's a shame.

We have seen all this suffering before and in a more honestly conveyed fashion as well. Maybe those scenes might work out in the novel, but in the movie you just feel somewhat embarrassed when Ji-hye as a narrator talks about her past with a grim voice. The drama can't really work because none of the characters have any depth. What's also depriving the film of any credibility is the fact that Lee Mi-yeon and Ahn Sung-kee simply got some little grey hair for their roles after having aged fifty years - otherwise their faces look as soft as a baby's bottom. Especially Lee looks way too young for her role! It remains a mystery what the filmmakers thought by doing this, because some of the action scenes, more than anything else the school building on fire, can score with some spectacular special effects. Maybe after that there wasn't any money left for a good make-up artist...

Towards the end we return to the present but the investigation is of no real interest to us anymore. The ending itself isn't satisfying in any way either. The forced emotions take the upper hand and "Last Witness" becomes a cliché of pain and suffering through the seperation of a nation, which at best can get some grandmothers and grandfathers (the small amount that will have survived the war) to shed some tears every time this subject is merely touched upon. The serious topic surely doesn't deserve this. Director Bae wants to spice up his movie with some action but the drama just becomes lofty and ridiculous. Only main actor Lee Jung-jae can keep the movie grounded at times with his portrayal of a cool cop. Apart from that "Last Witness" stumbles through different genres and simply touches too many clichés of the drama genre.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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