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Original Title:
Dodoiyuheui peurojekteu, peojeul

South Korea 2006

Thriller, Crime, Drama

Kim Tae-kyeong

Joo Jin-mo
Moon Sung-keun
Kim Hyun-sung
Hong Seok-cheon
Park Jun-seok
Jang Ji-won
Lee Sang-hong
Kim Ha-gyoon

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Story: Five man are hired by a mysterious Mr. X to rob a bank. The plan is set and perfect. However, after four of the man have the loot in their hands and want to bring it to the boss of the group, who has already been waiting to make the stock papers into money, they have to find out that their boss has been killed. The four men are now trapped in a warehouse with a hostage in their grip and have to find out as soon as possible how this murder could have happened. Maybe in the end someone in their own ranks is playing a double game?
The dead man is Hwan (Moon Sung-keun), a former loan shark, who was made the head of the group. Ryu (Joo Jin-mo) on the other hand is a former policeman and always keeps a cool head. Only Jung (Kim Hyun-sung) seems to be on par with him concerning judiciousness and coolness. Quite the opposite is Noh (Hong Seok-cheon), a true hothead, who seems like a walking time bomb. Nevertheless, Kyu (Park Jun-seok), the youngest in the gang, is the first who has to deal with the concequences of a slip of the tongue, which indicates that he seemingly knows more than he wants the other to believe. Nonetheless, the other three also have their secrets they want to hide from the rest...

Review: "Puzzle" is a truely captivating and entertaining as well as gripping thriller which can keep up a high tension until the very end and at the same time even demands of the viewer to use his grey matter. Moreover, the film once again showed me that this world isn't fair. Director Kim Tae-kyeong put a lot of strength into hiding his script's details, which is why - and also because of a low budget, naturally - the movie didn't get much promotion. The result is that "Puzzle" didn't make it big at the box office and actually wasn't much talked about. And that's truely a shame as the film qualitywise as well as plotwise has so much more to offer than the last four Korean thrillers that have recently come out put together. Director Kim scores on several levels, delivers a great script with a lot of knotty details and twists, and narration-wise his work is also very convincing. The actual strength of the film, however, lies in the characters, which the whole story focuses on. Therefore, we are presented with three-dimensional individuals within a very short amount of time, that can bound us to our chair in no time. It has been quite a while since a thriller could win me over as much as "Puzzle" did.

The opening already prepares the viewer for what there is to come. We get to see a murder in a warehouse, yet don't know anything about the culprit's and victim's identity. We get to know more about latter when the four men enter the warehouse, though. They exepect their accomplice there, but only stumble upon a burned corpse. The dead guy seems to be the fifth man of the gang, but even this is something you can't be sure of all the time. The film very much plays with the viewer's expectations and makes the several bank robbers look quite intangible for quite a while. Only as the film progresses we get to know more about the individual characters through several chapters that draw a plastic background story around them. And we learn what to think of the bank robbers a little bit better. Or at least that's what the audience is led to believe, because in reality we never really know what secrets the bank robbers are still hiding from us and the other protagonists. This stands as the biggest part of the movie's thrilling factor, since this is naturally the groundwork for a lot of mistrust between the individuals. And the situation gets more and more tension-filled as things evolve.

Anyway, the story doesn't only give us insight into the past of the different protagonists, but also grants us gradual insight into the first meeting of the group, the bank heist and its prior planning. It's especially this narration which makes the film work out so well, since the viewer has to look out for many small details that may prove crucial for the movie and the solving of the puzzle. That is because like in a puzzle, hence the name of the film, we only start to see the overall picture little by little. The picture becomes clearer with every part we acquire and put into right order. There are enough clues scattered throughout the movie to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions and guess at the culprit's identity. Towards the end you will have one or two hunches, but you will have to find out that for some reasons you actually lost grip of them somewhere throughout the film.
From a movie as mysterious as this one, always trying to make the viewer think about the events depicted on screen, you probably expect a great resolving. I for my part was very excited about this movie while watching and somehow was expecting the whole time that the director would steer his movie into a wall during the last seconds by implenting a contrived ending. Luckily, this isn't the case. The ending isn't that impressive or original as you might have wanted it to be, but it's in no way contrived or bad, either.

Apart from an ending that just isn't perfect, "Puzzle" really can captivate its audience. This is mainly thanks to well done and genuine drawing of the characters, their development during the plot's course, and the fantastic actors, of whom most are unknown faces, except from Moon Sung-keun ("Princess Aurora") and Joo Jin-mo ("Wanee and Junah"). What's especially impressive is that the actors manage to bestow structure and color upon their characters within the short running time of a mere 90 minutes. Actually, no one of them falls by the wayside. For the audience, interestingly, this means that you can't sympathize with any of them, since every one of them has something ambiguous about him, yet they are still characters you can relate to and who manage to draw you into the movie. That's what makes "Puzzle" so successful, as it is without a doubt a character-orientated thriller, of which there are sadly only few coming out these days. Furthermore, the story over and over again provides you with new elements and puzzle pieces, that you are supposed to put together, so that there actually is never any second of boredom!

Stylistically, "Puzzle" also deserves some words of praise. Director Kim Tae-kyeong uses different techniques to make the claustrophobia in the warehouse, in which a good part of the movie takes place, almost tangible. Lighting, many shadows, inventive camera angles - all of this adds to a fantastic whole. The lighting is used in many different ways and on numerous occasions. One set, for example, is bathed with ocher colours which gives the mood something dark and threatening. Moreover, there are also split-screens used if it serves to show the characters' coolness. Still, the director never lets these moments feel overstated. Adding to the thrilling and tension-filled atmosphere is a nice and oftentimes mystery-like soundtrack.

"Puzzle" has to put up with being compared to Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs", even though it stands on its own feet, but the scenes at the warehouse sometimes also reminded me of "A Bittersweet Life". Even though it never reaches the expertise of the latter, Kim Tae-kyeong's work could really surprise me and keep me at the edge of my seat until the very end. Even if Kim states in interviews, that he had to make some compromises concerning additional action scenes as his very short budget didn't allow him to do all what he wanted, it's quite designative that a good movie can create high tension by dialogues and well-drawn characters only. Because of its high entertainment value, a good story, great characters and techical finesse - and all that despite a low budget - "Puzzle" gets a subjective extra-point. This film simply deserves to be seen by more people.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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