A bored businessman looking for a bit of excitement gets up to no good while his wife is away, and is ultimately caught in a nebulous conspiracy determined to unravel his picture-perfect life, in writer-director Lim Jin-Seung’s Puzzle. A slow, respectably compelling start that recalls David Fincher’s The Game (narratively, if not tonally) eventually gives way to a more rote thriller with a less-than-satisfying conclusion that’s sure to infuriate many, many viewers.
A more cohesive film, with a sturdier foundation, than Lim’s earlier, serviceable thriller Outdoor Begins and the prison romance Eun-ha, Puzzle is a modest genre piece that will feel as if it fell off a cliff for half the audience, and will be a slog for the half waiting to see some bloody Korean revenge action. The pic could carve out some space for itself on the genre circuit, and its modesty is perfectly suited to streaming services, where horror fans are sure to check it out.
Careful what you wish for.
Puzzle begins with the indelible image of someone in a creepy clown mask dragging a bloody mallet down the hallway of a swish apartment building and breaking into a home. We then jump back in time to a normal day at the office. After his promotion to department head at an advertising firm (maybe?), Do-Joon (Ji Seung-Hyun) would appear to have it all: career, family, fulfillment. He’s even written a kind of self-help book on the subject. But it’s clear there is disquiet in Do-Joon’s life. His wife, Min-Gyeong (Lee Se-Mi), and daughter are living in Vancouver, there’s another man lurking overseas, and his wife has postponed an upcoming visit. He spends his evenings alone in his cavernous apartment, eating instant noodles and watching family videos.
Yonggu (Kang Ki-Young), a colleague who’s dying to try a new hostess club where the girls get “freaky,” finally breaks down the bored and lonely Do-Joon and gets him to agree to a night out, but cancels at the last minute. On his own and wandering the emptiest streets Seoul has ever seen, Do-Joon encounters damsel in distress/femme fatale Se-Ryeon (Lee again) and joins her for a drink at a bar (with only two moodily lit seats) for some seduction via cigarette lighter.
The first half of the film, with Do-Joon as an exemplar of modern professional malaise, is actually its stronger half. Do-Joon’s lassitude, frustration, lack of fulfillment and the demands of at least publicly demonstrating none of those are problems that ring true, and his predicament likely will resonate with more than a few viewers. He’s a success at work, his staff seem to love him — among them a hot-to-trot garden-variety office lady — and his young, beautiful wife is, well, young and beautiful. But as Do-Joon’s curious adventure moves along, it’s revealed that his job is filled with mundane paperwork, his employees are irritating and his wife is childish and immature. The expectations Do-Joon had for his life are far from his experiences.
The thriller half kicks in when, after an evening at an enigmatic brothel — suggested by mystery woman Se-Ryeon — a nightmare conspiracy begins to unfold, beginning with the dead woman who’s beside Do-Joon when he wakes. Lim leans heavily on misdirects, piles on the cryptic identities and essentially uses a video game construction where Do-Joon must solve one piece of the puzzle (get it?) in order to be led to the next. Stylistically, in-camera effects suggest a series of possibilities: Is Do-Joon concussed? Is he experiencing time jumps? Phasing in and out of this dimension? Who knows? His confusion is there to increase his gory badassery (which comes out of nowhere) en route to the big reveal of who’s dismantling his life and why.
It’s up to Ji, best known for his television work, to carry the film, and for the most part he proves up to the task, by turns dour, enraged, terrified and wounded. The film’s construction and Do-Joon’s arc may have hinted at the final, ludicrous twist, but in doubling down on a preposterous reality/unreality premise, Lim sucks the air out of the early-going moments in Puzzle that seemed to be flirting with real insight, and if not that, at least with a darker, more cautionary After Hours. Tech specs are average, but suit the overall game vibe.
Production company: Contents Shock
Cast: Ji Seung-Hyun, Kang Ki-Young, Lee Se-Mi, Young Geon, Bang Su-Hyung, Yang Myeong-Heo
Director-screenwriter: Lim Jin-Seung
Producer: Son Jae-Bock
Director of photography: An Hui-Seong
Production designer: Kim Jae-In
Editor: Choi Hui-Yeong
Music: Bak Sang-Cheol
World sales: Mirovision