Grimmfest 2021 – Midnight

By Naomi Roper

Kyeong-mi  (Jin Ki-joo) is a young deaf woman who works as a customer support technician for a large company helping them with their hearing-impaired customers. Her mother (Gil Hae-yeon), who is also deaf works as a seamstress. One night they cross paths with Do-sik  (Wi Ha-jun (also credited as Wi Ha-joon), Squid Game) a charming serial killer who has abducted and seriously injured So Jung-eun (Kim Hye-yoon). They tell the police but aren’t believed. Will Do-sik get away with murder?

Before we get into shallow discussions of how unbelievably hot Wi Ha-jun is it’s really important to note that this is a film about deaf women played by hearing actresses.  That’s not something that should be thrown in as an aside at the end of the review.  One agonisingly lengthy sequence in which a terrified Kyeong-mi desperately vocalises to Do-sik in a failed attempt at getting a psychopath to show her mercy is flat out unbearable to watch despite the actress giving it her all because she is a hearing actress crassly mimicking what she thinks a deaf person trying to speak would sound like. In the year of our lord 2021, we should not have able-bodied actors pretending to have a disability. It’s grotesque. 

But we can’t be snotty about other film industries not being as “evolved” as modern Hollywood on the notion of able-bodied people play-acting disabilities. Barely 5 years ago Mike Flanagan cast his hearing wife Kate Siegel in Hush – co-incidentally the story of a deaf woman trying to evade a killer. Natalie Dormer starred in In Darkness (a film she also co-wrote) all of three years ago in which she played a blind musician despite being able to see. In fact, the decision to cast Kiera Allen, an actress who uses a wheelchair for mobility reasons in the role of a young girl with mobility issues opposite the mighty Sarah Paulson in the psychodrama Run was heralded simply because of how unusual it is. Hell even when they get the casting spot-on (casting deaf actors to play deaf characters in CODA) they still can’t manage to get it right.

So Midnight is the latest in a long line of films that have cast abled-bodied actors in the roles of characters with a disability. Let’s hope it’s one of the last…

If you can put all that aside then Midnight does have its charms mostly in the form of Wi Ha-jun who effortlessly steals the show as a seductive psychopath who is just really enthusiastic about killing women. Ha-jun’s charisma is so strong (and he is a damn fine looking gentleman) that honestly at times it completely unbalances the film because you find yourself wanting to root for the villain. Which undoubtedly isn’t the outcome writer/director Kwon Oh-seung intended. Do-sik is not a character to root for, he’s a vicious unrepentant serial killer who gets a kick out of terrorising two deaf women. Yet Ha-jun plays him with such utter glee and devilish charm that you can’t help but be charmed by it.  

Director Kwon Oh-seung depicts a world in which sexism and condescension are almost as much of a threat to Kyeong-mi and her mother as the serial killer after them both. Kyeong-mi is the diversity hire, there because her company is required to have her not because they want her. When she volunteers to attend a corporate dinner her supervisor openly sneers at her and is reluctant to include her. At the event, she is repeatedly insulted by gross drunk men who make lewd comments about her not knowing she can lipread every word. When Do-sik strikes the police all but pat her and her mother on the head they’re so wildly condescending. Two terrified deaf women who can’t communicate are no match for a silver-tongued psychopath in a sharp suit. Because people always listen to the nicely dressed man (especially if they’re handsome). Handsome men get away with a lot. Look at the Netflix series You where people forgave the black hole of humanity at its centre because the actor is attractive. In the very attractive Ha-jun’s hands a smile and a sharp suit are every bit as effective weapons as his big old bag of knives. 

Jin Ki-joo is strong as Kyeong-mi bringing out the character’s inner strength and resourcefulness. Her performance is overshadowed by Ha-jun’s and of course, the fact that she is play-acting a disability doesn’t help but she does as well as she can with the character. 

Kwon Oh-seung rather throws away his most effective scares almost immediately (why introduce the sound monitor in the car and then have that pay off a couple of scenes later rather than at the end of the film?) and as tense as Midnight can be in stretches that tension is never really given much chance to build. Instead, Oh-seung keeps his characters moving. Literally. I have never seen so much cardio-action in a movie.  It’s just one long epic foot chase after another!

Despite its flawed casting Midnight is an effective cat and mouse thriller boasting a killer (pun intended) performance from Wi Ha-jun. Hopefully, Squid Game’s current insane popularity will encourage people to seek out his performance here which deserves a wide audience.

Midnight screened at Grimmfest