Director: Kwon Hyung Jin
Cast: Ma Dong-Seok, Jo Han-Sun, Kim Min-Kyung, Ji An, Yoon Joo, Kwon Bum-Taek, Kim Dong-Hyun, Min Kyung-Jin, Jeong Gi-Seop, Kang Seung-Wan
Duration: 96 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
In the Korean film industry the mid-budget genre piece has become increasingly rare in recent years, with the 2019 international hit of Parasite and the 2021 Netflix series Squid game seemingly widening the gap when it comes to production budgets. Bigger budgets these days tend to go to more mainstream productions with potential cross-over appeal, while smaller-budget indie productions increasingly focus on edgy tales of social woes and gritty realism. As a result, we no longer see as many modestly budgeted genre pieces as we did in 2015 Deep trapwhich is a shame because the creative talent behind them is definitely still there.
In case of Deep trap talent in the director’s chair is Kwon Hyeong-jin, and the production will mark his last time (as of this writing) to direct a feature film since his debut with My piano in 2006. He would direct the 2008 thriller in the meantime Truckquickly followed by drama Wedding dress in 2010, marking his filmography as that of a reliable journeyman director who can be relied upon to create entertaining slices of mid-budget cinema regardless of gender.
Made in a year when Korea was particularly fond of ‘Trap’ themed titles (the other 2 were erotic thrillers in the form of The trap AND Trap: lethal temptation), In Deep trap we are introduced to a couple played by Jo Han-sun (A better tomorrow, The cruel winter melancholy) and Kim Min-kyung (The killer, Miss and Mrs Cops). After suffering a miscarriage they drift apart, with Han-sun in particular hampered by the fact that he has since become impotent, a condition that sees him at a loss as to how to make his wife happy again. After coming home drunk one night, Min-kyung decides they should take a trip to get away from it all for a day and books a restaurant on a rural island off the coast for some much-needed couple time.
For those with even a passing familiarity with Korean thrillers, it should come as no surprise that a couple heading to the countryside for an escape from the city usually never ends well, perhaps the best example being the 2001 grim horror Say yes. Deep trap it won’t do anything innovative that strays from the tried and true formula, so in that sense it’s more about how effectively it pulls off its well-worn genre tropes and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Thankfully Hyeong-jin knows how to put together a cheap narrative, with the whole miscarriage setup taking place even before the title hits the screen, avoiding any risk of getting bogged down in melodrama and allowing the plot to get right to work . The fact that it’s all packed into a tight 96-minute package (never something that should be taken for granted with Korean films) is a welcome bonus.
The restaurant, predictably, ends up being a bit off the beaten track, and turns out to be little more than a small outdoor lounge attached to a run-down dwelling populated by free-roaming chickens and cats. The couple are greeted by the sight of the portly owner, played by Ma Dong-seok (The rundown, Derailed), verbally abusing and pushing around who we assume is his shy wife, played by Ji An (Serve the People, Coffee buddies), also silent. While their gut understandably tells them to leave, once Dong-seok sees them and eagerly invites them to sit down, Ma Dong-seok looks like Ma Dong-seok, it’s hard to say no.
What is perhaps more interesting when watching Deep trap in 2023, is that it is a sold film about the presence of Ma Dong-seok before he became a bankable star. Made among her grittiest role in Kim Ki-duk’s 2015 thriller One by oneand his 2016 breakout as a zombie-beating husband in 2016 Train to Busan, Dong-seok is that rare star who already had a sizable filmography to his name when he broke out. His popularity in recent years has given him the freedom to play the roles he is most comfortable with and, by his own admission, enjoys – characters that utilize his exterior built like a brick wall, but at the same time they exhibit an almost awkward charm coupled with a keen sense of comedic timing. Along these lines, for anyone looking to take on darker roles, there’s a strong possibility that he already has, the secret is to look before 2016.
Dong-seok famously mentioned in press conferences for Deep trap which had a hard time getting into the mindset of the character as it involved a lot of violence, both visceral and sexual, however on screen it does a stellar job of creating a sense of intimidation and unpredictability. The most disturbing aspect of his character is the balance the narrative strikes between revealing his motivations and toying with audiences’ assumptions about how far he would go to achieve them. Delivering an unnerving mix of warm friendliness and bawdy banter, Dong-seok creates a character whose violence seems inherent and almost inevitable, seemingly unaware of the morally reprehensible aspect of his actions.
Before that though, for the most part Hyeong-jin keeps the tension at a simmer, gradually introducing a level of unease through small details that create a sense of foreboding. Han-sun and Min-kyung are told that they can choose the chicken to make their chicken soup from, which then has its throat slit in front of them, and the scene involving a centipede wine jar isn’t one that probably will. will be. easily forgotten. When they are ready to drive back and find that their car won’t start, Han-sun is drunk enough to think that Dong-seok’s offer to stay there for the night until the garage opens the following day is a perfect one. idea. i.e. when Deep trap begins to lean into its genre trappings (pun intended).
Except for a few minor supporting characters, Hyeong-jin mostly allows the 4 key players to carry the narrative forward, and Ji An is arguably the scene stealer of the quartet. With zero dialogue to work with, his role as a mute is shrouded in mystery. Why can’t he speak? Are you a former victim that Dong-seok enslaved? Why didn’t she try to escape? These are all questions that are being answered, some of them in surprising ways, by giving Deep trap draw a few welcome layers beyond the basic “city couple colliding with wanton small-town psychopath” trope. An’s role is ultimately critical to Che’s leadership Deep trap finds itself heading to and ironically results in more nudity than either previously mentioned erotic thriller, though not all of it is of the pleasing variety.
That direction eventually also sees the red stuff start flowing thanks to blunt force trauma to the head, something no mid-2010 Korean thriller seemed to be complete without, and the finale unfolds predictably. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there are only so many ways a couple on a remote island can have a chance at escape, and if you’re going to have someone chasing you through the woods with an ax, it’s hard think that someone is someone other than Ma Dong-seok in terms of tension factor.
If you find yourself craving a more straightforward slice of horror, one that doesn’t involve any deep exploration of trauma or commentary on the state of society (not that there’s anything wrong with those), then Deep trap comes with a simple recommendation. It’s not meant to reinvent the wheel, but it does what it sets out to do effectively, creating a lean and mean story that essentially boils down to a guy who just wants to fix his erectile dysfunction. Maybe next time he’ll just order some Viagra.
Rating by Paul Bramhall: 6.5/10