Director: Kim Tae Joon
Cast: Chun Woo-Hee, Im Si-Wan, Kim Hee-Won, Park Ho-San, Kim Ye-Won, Jeon Jin-Oh, Oh Hyun-Kyung, Ryoo Sung-Hyun, Jeon Ik-Ryung, Kim Joo- Ryung
Duration: 117 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Since the mobile phone became widely available in the late 90s, there has been no shortage of cinematic offerings whose storylines revolve around the device that we cannot do without. Korea is no different, be it supernatural events in 2002 Telephonetime travel or horror themed thrillers like the ones from 2015 The phone and 2020 The callor a race against time to recover incriminating content like in 2009 Mobile phone. Much like the transition from our old Nokia 3310 to the latest iPhone (ok, since we’re in Korean territory technically we should say Samsung Galaxy), as the devices get more advanced and smarter, the textures that are placed at the core stay in much the same.
Which brings us to 2023 Unlockeda remake of the 2018 Japanese film Identity stolen (itself based on a novel by Japanese author Akira Teshigawara), directed by ring director Hideo Nakata. Unlocked doesn’t have such an experienced director at the helm, with the production marking the directorial debut of Kim Tae-joon, who has thus far spent most of his career in various productions as part of the directing crew (including being the assistant director for 2014 Office). Adapting a story that directly plays on how addicted we’ve become to our smartphones, Tae-joon creates an attention-grabbing opening credits sequence that plays on our main characters phone screen while typing, taking selfies, banking, emailing, shopping, and since it’s a Netflix movie, watching Netflix.
Played by Chun Woo-hee (Idol, The Pied Piper), her character juggles 2 jobs working for an online fashion retailer while also supporting her father’s cafe, resulting in her relying heavily on her smartphone to pretty much manage most of her life. After a drunken night out with her friends, she accidentally drops her phone when she gets off the bus, only realizing it’s missing when her friend wakes her up the next morning, after trying to contact her by calling her. Unfortunately the phone was tapped by a serial killer played by Im Si-wan (The ruthless, The prosecutor), which is quite a niche modus operandi that involves reclaiming phones that people have left behind, returning them with spyware installed that clones the phone, thereby turning the victim’s life upside down. In fairness, he also owns a phone repair shop, however he’s so off the radar that it’s hard to believe anyone visits other than those victims he invites to retrieve their phone.
Perhaps unsurprising considering how much havoc is caused by Woo-hee’s phone falling into the hands of a serial killer (and how easily all of its data is stolen), it seems that neither Samsung nor Apple were willing to get on board to enjoy the product positioning advantages, so instead we’re left with the fictional Thunder brand (we see a lot of Instagram though).
The concept of a stranger being able to watch and listen to your every move through your smartphone’s camera and microphone is suitably baffling, not to mention that they can also access your social media accounts, online banking, and much more. Despite this, though, Tae-joon creates what for the most part is an entirely predictable, tension-free affair that struggles to find any meaning to justify its existence. Both Woo-hee and Si-wan are able to deliver nuanced and layered performances when they have the right material to work with, however here they are both left scrambling with a one dimensional script that veers from dull to ridiculous over the course of the nearly 2 hour autonomy.
Si-wan plays basically the same character he was in the equally lackluster Emergency declarationthat of an uninspired, motiveless killer, one who further continues the laziness to create memorable antagonists that has become increasingly pronounced in Korean cinema in recent years (see also serial killer characters such as The witness AND Midnight). Things are further confused by the introduction of a pair of completely useless detective characters, played by Kim Hee-won (On the line, Divine Move 2: Wrath) and Jeon Jin-oh (The rundown, Kingdom: Northern Ashin), which add nothing other than filling the runtime. While some intrigue is introduced through the revelation that Si-wan’s serial killer may actually be Hee-won’s estranged son whom he hasn’t seen in 7 years, on screen it seems largely irrelevant and any opportunity to ratchet up the tension is squandered. .
It is ironic that the most interesting element of Unlocked – that of a detective who suspects his son of a serial killer – is the leitmotif of the plot that is given the least amount of time. The scenes with Hee-won mostly see him moping and generally looking miserable as he makes earnest efforts to find out whether he could really be his son or not. Considering how cheesy the main storyline is about Woo-hee having his smartphone stolen and replicated, I’d much rather watch a movie where the main storyline is a cop trying to figure out if their offspring is a psychotic serial killer or not . Here though sadly it barely registers as an afterthought.
Instead, the story creates scenarios in Woo-hee’s life that can later be unveiled with a level of transparency only matched by a freshly cleaned window. Her boss gives her a pay raise but tells her not to let any of the other employees know, if an upcoming retail event goes well she will get a promotion, the list goes on, all of course perfectly placed for Si -wan to sow seeds of discontent once he has access to your phone’s data. While foreshadowing is inevitable in any film like this, there’s a lack of subtlety on display Unlocked this makes setups feel stale and premeditated long before the halfway point.
The other inevitability in a storyline revolving around a smartphone being hacked is that a lot of time will be spent looking at a phone screen or, as is the case here, looking at Woo-hee from the perspective of the phone’s front-facing camera. . With the right balance of editing and sound design, scenes where characters spend a lot of time looking at their phones can still be engaging (2015 Social phobia is a good example), yet here most people watching the screen lack any sense of urgency or danger. The result is that there are moments when it feels Unlocked is meant to be little more than an extended PSA on the dangers of storing too much personal information on your smartphone.
When Woo-hee finally gets to interact with the 2 detectives, the tone takes on unintentional comedy, as his character suddenly becomes emboldened to track down and capture Si-wan so he can get his life back (which involves cringe-inducing speech who seems completely out of character), hatching a plan that suggests he’s smarter than both detectives combined. Said plan finally sees Unlocked limp to a disappointing ending that feels like a dank squib, completing a bland and lifeless take on the thriller genre.
The Japanese original received a sequel in 2020 with Identity stolen 2and while I haven’t seen either of them, I can only assume they were far more entertaining and well-received than what Tae-joon has put together in the form of Unlocked. I also assume we won’t get a sequel to the Korean version, as it’s hard to think of any redeeming qualities that would justify continuing such a boring exercise in genre cinema. Definitely Unlocked it ends up being a perfect example of a production squandering a talented cast on lackluster direction, predictable storytelling, and characters too underdeveloped to care. While I usually say I’d rather watch a movie than spend 2 hours scrolling through my smartphone, in the case of UnlockedI can safely say I would make an exception.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 3/10