Crime and Punishment in South Korea By Fritz de Jong

in 23th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Fritz de Jong

A video camera is on screen in almost half of all the scenes of the powerful South Korean drama Spying Cam (Frakchi). But who is spying on who? This question is not answered until the very last scenes. What first appears to be a minimalist, sometimes even absurdist Kammerspiel eventually turns out to be a political thriller, that has many things to say about the oppressive political climate in South-Korea. Not much seems to be going on at first. Two men share a sparse hotel room. One is a dominant character in his thirties, who likes showing off his machismo by frequently waving his gun. The younger man, somewhere in his twenties, has a more passive attitude. Outside the chamber maids are speculating whether the two men, who haven’t left their room for days, might be gay. As it turns out, the older man is a policeman protecting (or guarding?) the younger man, a student. While they are waiting for instructions from outside the hotel the men experiment with the student’s video camera. Through a hole in the wall they spy on their neighbours, a young girl and her older lover. When it comes to a meeting with these neighbours it results in a scene of unsettling violence, displaying the fierce agression of the cop. But the police man also has a softer side, which is revealed when the room mates start reading Dostoevsky’s classical novel Crime and Punishment as if it were a theatrical drama.

There are some heartfelt moments when they bring to life the deeply romantic relationship between guiltridden murderer Raskolnikov and kind prostitute Sofya. But in his feature film debut director Whang Cheol-Mean also uses the reading and staging of Crime and Punishment to demonstrate his talent for comedy, especially in the scenes where the cop becomes completely preoccupied by understanding the exact relationships between all the characters in the novel. Mirroring Raskolnikovs paranoid frame of mind the film sustains a feeling of claustrophobia and containment throughout. This is not just the result of setting most of the scenes in one room. Through their speech and behaviour the characters make clear that they are used to living in a society where freedom of speech and thought may not be taken for granted. Without literally explaining the political situation in South Korea the film hints at the large influence of national politics on the lives of individuals. Whang Cheol-Mean chooses to examine this influence on the human level. This humble approach lends the film its strength.