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The last few years in South Korean cinema have brought us titles like Broken, Hope, Don’t Cry Mommy, Montage, Commitment, and other films that played upon the universal fear of seeing children in danger. 2014’s Guardian joins that list with a bit of twist.

Jeon-mo’s flower shop is a family affair.  His wife, tween-aged daughter and young son all pitch in, and life is blissfully ordinary.  The phone call that Jeon-mo receives after his little girl fails to return home from school on time, plunges the family into unimaginable terror.  When an anonymous voice claims to have kidnapped Hee-jeong, Jeon-mo’s only chance to get his child back is to follow all the kidnapper’s demands, which aren’t as simple as meeting for an exchange of money for the girl’s release.  Jeon-mo’s panic doesn’t allow him to process the criminal’s occasional odd utterances as they are on the phone; so he misses clues like the kidnapper questioning him about his “sins,” or giving away that as he’s got the frightened father on the run, the villain must be within eyesight to note Jeon-mo’s location and activities.  Jeon-mo also refuses to call the cops in to help; his previous employment as a fireman gave him troubling insight to the police force’s slapdash methods of hostage negotiation.  So, without any assistance, Jeon-mo is at the kidnapper’s mercy, and must obey even when the disembodied voice commands him to kidnap another child that he will trade for Hee-jeong.  Will this former hero, who once famously saved kindergarteners from a fiery death, submit to the kidnapper’s deadly cat and mouse game to save his own child?

As Guardian starts out, it takes all of three minutes to predict what is going to happen to this family, and that’s just when director Yoo Won-sang, flips the script and takes a completely different route.  As Jeon-mo runs this hellish gauntlet that sees him in situations he could never have imagined, another ordinary dad is simultaneously committing crimes for the life of his stolen child on the orders of the same anonymous voice.  The film’s exploration of how far a parent will go in order to save their child takes it to places dark and horrific enough to make Jeon-mo question everything he is.  To this end, Jeon-mo’s portrayal by Kim Su-hyeon is engrossing and true, as is Lee Joon-hyuk’s role as the hapless second father, who gives us some chills in his earliest moments onscreen. 

Unfortunately, thrills is the main area where Guardian is lacking.  While those aforementioned performances are compelling, Yoo never quite builds the tension a script like this needs.  The constant change in the kidnapper’s commands to Jeon-mo become more irritating than spine-tingling, and the demeanour of the voice on the phone is just weird, as opposed to menacing.  By the second day of strange, tiresome orders, I would have either called in the cops, or just hung up the phone and changed my number.  The villain is never fully developed and that’s a problem when he’s at the crux of the story; just knowing his reasons isn’t enough.  Past the quickly-figured twist of the fathers’ parallel dilemmas, the telegraphing of the rest of the action kills any real mystery.  You see the end coming and it doesn’t feel satisfying.  In his first feature, Director Yoo gives us a psychological thriller that is interesting, but bears precious few thrills.  Luckily, he makes up for those shortcomings with those great actors in the father roles, and the child actors playing the movie’s two young sons are alternately adorable and heartwarming.

Guardian’s suspense never simmers past lukewarm, but keeps from going stone cold, thanks to the engrossing performances from its cast.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 31st, 2015


Guardian screened at New York’s Asia Society as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s “Fathers on Screen" series.


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