NYAFF 2017: Ordinary Person
Ordinary Person presents itself as a murky procedural that takes place in 1987, with a story anchored by a browbeaten cop Kang Sung-jin (played by Son Hyun Joo) who is tracking a suspected serial killer and in securing his capture realizes that he might have the wrong suspect. However, when Kang realizes the case is compromised, he’s baited by the Chief of National Security Planning Choi Gyoo-nam (Jang Hyuk) with the prospect of money and accolades for his efforts from the upper levels of South Korean intelligence. Sung-jin’s moral compass is put to the test as he yearns for a better life for his family, not to mention his child is in need of surgery; can Sung-jil enable a conspiracy and wrongful imprisonment for the sake of his family?
Well, Ordinary Person asks some potent questions, deals with some strong thematic material, and has a brilliant front running actor as the main protagonist (Son Hyun-Joo), but the dense story is too busy and doesn’t successfully filter the historical context to support the narrative. The context of history and politics can change the mechanics of a movie, and when that context is secured with the right genre and story, a standard thriller can operate as a substantial thriller.
Ordinary Person has a degree of certainty about the importance of its 1987 setting; a time when the Hwaseong Serial Killings ( the inspiration for Memories of Murder) and the establishment of the Sixth Republic which reinstated elections and civil rights ending years of a military regime.
But all of this feels like backburner material as Ordinary Person, and its ever-shifting narrative devices, psychological thriller, family drama, political allegory, police procedural, etc. run around so much it wears itself out, as well as the viewer.
There’s some potency in the film's exploration of a corrupt police force and the lingering air of the country's troubled past (the eighteen-year reign of President Park Chung hee's ending in 1979) where suspects were tortured and innocent people were beaten into giving confessions became standard practice. That’s reflected in the treatment of the principal character arcs, but this tenor of gloom doesn’t emphasize anything much more than the basic "good v. bad" moral dilemma. With its best intentions in place the film doesn’t feel like it’s devoted to the period in which it is set, nor does it feel all that invested in its own fiction, which makes the whole of the film feel inarticulate and shapeless.
It makes the emotional crescendos and personal conflicts seem less impactful because they’re so broad. Sung-jin’s disabled kid needing an operation, Gyoo-nam’s slick villainy, and the protagonist's moral dilemma unfolds with such black and white moralism - it’s hard to care because it all feels so mechanical.
Ordinary Person suffers from an identity disorder; when it settles on the police procedural, there’s the glimmer of a narrative that felt like True Detective by way of Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder. But, it pole vaults into a variation of a family drama for a few paces and jumps into a political conspiracy and what you're left with is catching up and wondering if how these loose threads are going to be tied back together.
Despite the good intentions that appear in the screenplay, the tonal shifts and underdeveloped characters make Ordinary Person feel like a movie at odds with itself. There’s some energy to feed off of from the cast, but the supporting players are only given so much to work with, leaving their characters to fall by the wayside, feeling like functionary devices. Son Hyun-Joo’s performance is bristling with screen presence and natural charisma; his range is convincing at every beat and understands the importance of internalized emotional beats as much as external; a dynamic and exciting actor to have on your radar.