Disability is often poorly represented in the horror genre, especially in film. Disabled people will either be reduced to helpless victims, such as a wheelchair user being made to run away from a killer wheelchair in his dreams in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, or are made into the villains, with so many horror films having mentally disabled killers as a nice easy hand wave excuse for a killer with no motive. It’s not very often that you get a horror film where not only is a disabled person seen as no different from an able-bodied person, but they also get to survive in large part due to their disability. Midnight is one of these films.
Midnight follows Kyeong-mi (Ki-joo Jin), a deaf-mute woman who spends her days working as a customer service rep in a call centre, and her evenings spending time with her mother, who is also deaf-mute. The two women don’t let their disabilities slow them down, and we spend a good deal of time with the two of them seeing how they live their lives; going to work and spending time with their friends, and showing the audience what kinds of aids they have in their life (things that end up becoming extremely important towards the end of the film).
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Their happy life gets turned upside down one awful evening, however, when Kyeong-mi comes across a woman in an alleyway, stabbed in the stomach. This puts her on the radar of serial killer Do Shik (Wi Ha-Jun), who’s watching from his van nearby. Do Shik manages to get the girl back in his van and tied up, but now he has to deal with Kyeong-mi too. Thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse as the killer stalks Kyeong-m and her mother across the city, trying to get them alone in order to kill them.
From the description of the movie I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from Midnight. With films like Hush and Don’t Breathe having similar set-ups – a killer stalking a victim, and disabilities being a main part of the plot (albeit one with the victim being disabled, and the other the killer) – I was half expecting a similar home-invasion style narrative. Midnight gives us something completely different though. Instead of being stalked through rooms in a remote home, the action takes place in the heart of a busy city, where Kyeong-mi has to navigate dark labyrinth-like alleys, deserted car-parks, and side streets in order to survive.
The film also does things slightly different with its killer, and Wi Ha-Jun is fantastic as Do Shik. Do Shik is a competent, and intelligent man. He doesn’t just rely on chasing after Kyeong-mi, but tries to outsmart her: changing his clothes, tricking her into thinking he’s someone else, and even using his apparent respectability to literally walk free from the police. There are times where it feels like the film is making something of a commentary on the levels of privilege certain people have, where a man in a smart suit gets instantly believed even when a disabled woman is trying to tell police that he’s a killer.
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Do Shik feels like he’s drawing upon real-life killers like Ted Bundy: handsome, respectable men who you would never think twice about being a decent person because he seems so ‘normal’. And Wi Ha-Jun feels like the perfect actor to pull this off. He’s good looking, he’s charming, he seems believable when he’s spinning his lies. He even copies the Bundy approach by appearing weak and needing help with his van to lure victims in. It’s only the disabled women, those who are forced to see the world differently thanks to how they get treated, who are able to see Do Shik for what he really is.
That all being said, I do have a criticism about the movie: namely that neither of the two actresses playing deaf characters, Ki-joo Jin and Hae-yeon Kil, are actually deaf. Whilst the two of them do play their roles well, and appear to be pretty respectful towards deaf people, I can’t speak with any authority to if that’s true or not. If deaf viewers were to find issue with their performance, I’d be happy to believe them. It’s a huge shame that this film wasn’t used as a platform to showcase the talents of some deaf actors, and feels like a genuine misstep from director Kwon Oh-seung, who has otherwise done a great job here.
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Other than the main feature, the new Blu-ray also comes with a 22-minute essay on Korean horror by Travis Crawford, which plays over the first twenty minutes of the film, occasionally overlaying the movie with posters and stills from other films. It’s a strange approach to a video essay, as it feels more like an odd style of commentary track than a regular essay, but still manages to be informative and interesting.
There’s also a full length audio commentary from film historian Kat Ellinger, who was part of the judging panel at Grimmfest, where Midnight won the Best Feature award in 2021. The commentary is very informative, and entertaining, although Ellinger’s use of person-first language to talk about disabled people rather than identity-first language did feel off at times.
Midnight is an interesting new addition to Korean horror cinema; a film that doesn’t rely on supernatural horror, as was popular over the last two decades, but instead takes a look at the horror people inflict upon each other, as well as showcasing disabled leads.
Midnight is out on Blu-ray and Digital on 14th March.