The central premise of Confession of Murder is really pretty brilliant. A serial killer brutally kills ten women and abducts an eleventh whose body is never found. The detective in charge of the case nearly catches him, but instead ends up with a slit mouth for his trouble, and a scar that he carries as a reminder. Years pass, and the statute of limitations on the killings expires. As soon as it does, a book comes out by a man claiming to be the killer, containing detailed descriptions of the murders that seemingly only the killer could know. The book sells millions of copies, and the author becomes an overnight celebrity, drawing the detective into his PR campaign and what seems to be a very public game of cat and mouse. Meanwhile, the families of the victims get together and plot their own brand of vigilante justice against the killer.
And that’s all just the set-up. Anyone who’s very familiar with Korean cinema probably knows by now that the best way to experience it is to go in as cold as possible. Before I walked into Confession of Murder, I knew about as much of the plot as is contained in that opening paragraph. Knowing much more would’ve probably taken some of the fun out of it, so if you’re already inclined to see the movie, you might want to stop reading right now, because that’s just the beginning.
Before long, another mystery figure comes forward, claiming to be the real killer. This new figure—initially a voice on a call-in show—wants to expose the self-confessed author as a fraud, and the stakes for everyone involved begin to escalate. And that’s about the halfway mark of the movie. There are plenty more twists and turns to come, but I’ll refrain from spoiling any of them, even for those intrepid souls still reading.
It’s a dynamite premise, and one that feels right at home in the annals of Korean revenge cinema. But Confession of Murder is an odd duck, even in that particularly odd subgenre. Director Byeong-gil Jeong’s previous film was a 2008 documentary about Korean stuntmen called Action Boys. That makes sense, because probably the most surprising thing about Confession of Murder is all the stunts.
While it’s got the premise of a revenge thriller, Confession of Murder has the stunt work of an action flick. The running fight between detective and killer that opens the film features a shaky and visceral camera, with water and dirt spattering onto the lens, but it’s shot without recourse to the kinds of quick cuts that would normally pervade such a sequence, giving the stunts a kind of visual continuity that adds to their kick. There are at least two elaborately staged car chases before the closing credits roll. And I don’t mean two cars following each other at high speeds. I mean cars flipping over embankments, people flying out of the backs of ambulances, fistfights happening on the hoods of multiple moving vehicles, etc. These are the action beats of a late-era Die Hard or Lethal Weapon film, not an emotionally-charged revenge epic.
But Confession of Murder attempts (and mostly succeeds) to have its cake and eat it too. One of the key elements of the Korean cinema that I’ve seen is the juxtaposition of silly and serious elements, of action and drama. An incredibly goofy moment will sit side-by-side with an incredibly grim one. Confession of Murder is no exception to that rule, and while the elaborate stunts might feel out of place in an American film with the same subject matter, here they’re just a part of the mix. The emotional beats here may never hit quite as well as in other similar fare like I Saw the Devil, but the twists are surprising, the stunts impressively staged, and the tension suitably high. It’s a fairly dense movie that will probably reward additional viewings, and if the ultimate resolution feels like a bit of a let-down after so much build-up, that’s pretty easily forgiven.
The Korean revenge subgenre has produced a host of classic films, and while Confession of Murder may not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them, it’s a unique enough take on the genre, with a strong enough premise, that it’s well worth a look or two or three.