"Puzzle" wants to be "The Usual Suspects" and "Reservoir Dogs" so badly it can taste it. First-time writer/director Kim Tae-Kyung borrows themes, ideas, plots, characters, and style directly from both movies, squishing them together to make a slick but ultimately unfulfilling mind game of a crime thriller. Unlike the worlds of Keyser Soze and Mr. Orange, we're never fully captivated by the proceedings here. When the script finally reveals its Big Secrets in the finale, we greet them with a nod and a shrug, and little else.
Like its inspirations, "Puzzle" opens in the aftermath of a heist. Four criminals, having successfully robbed a bank, return to their warehouse rendezvous only to discover their leader dead - shot and burned to a crisp. Paranoia mounts as the thieves attempt to figure out the culprit. Multiple flashbacks reveal that the crooks were strangers before the heist, all hired by an unknown boss, for unknown reasons. Does someone know more? Does the anonymous mastermind have other plans for his new employees?
Right there in the title, Kim tells us to pay attention to every frame, hunting for clues in each flashback. Problem is, some of the characters aren't really that involving, so it's easy to tune out during these pivotal scenes. A couple flashbacks devolve into limp action sequences (a brutal killing in a back alley, for example, paves the way for an unnecessary fight scene), others create an intentional jumble.
Kim's desire to push the audience into being an active participant is to be commended; he trusts the viewers' intelligence, a trait rarely seen in this genre. He doesn't want his movie to be a dumbed-down mystery where clues are over-explained. (Indeed, the film itself was shot under a heavy blanket of secrecy, and promotion was kept to a bare minimum, including a trailer featuring very little actual footage from the finished product. This shows a filmmaker eager to enhance the surprises of the moviegoing experience, and how great is that?)
But he also misunderstands the border between smart mystery and overwritten muddle. "Puzzle" drops in more elements than it ultimately needs, creating a solution that never entirely satisfies simply because no one solution could cover all the ground here. Granted, such more-than-enough-ness could be viewed as the result of a rich, complex world, and many solid mysteries offered up more questions than they could possibly answer. But in "Puzzle," Kim instead gets a bit over his head, and the excess riddles feel like loose ends, not depth.
For all his mistakes, however, Kim hints at a bright future. The visuals are slick and compelling, performances are tight, and a handful of the story elements work very well on their own. Indeed, one or two of the flashbacks are quite powerful. "Puzzle" might not entirely work, but if Kim keeps this up, his next one just might, and then some.
"Puzzle" arrives in Region 1 courtesy Genius Entertainment.
Video & Audio
While a pinch of grain pops up now and then in this anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, most of the film's dark scenes (and that's almost the entire thing) reveal rich, deep, crisp blacks. Colors are nice when they're allowed to be.
The original Korean soundtrack gets the Dolby 5.1 treatment, with a solid mix of dialogue and effects. Optional English subtitles are provided.
"Actor Interviews" (15:05) offers up EPK-style on-set chats with the cast, who do their best to discuss what a blast it was to make the movie without revealing any spoilers.
"Behind the Scenes Featurette" (15:20) is again just what it sounds like, with cast and crew discussing the film's creation. (They're very open about the Tarantino inspirations.) Interviews are mixed with on-set footage.
"Making of the Music Score" (12:12) features music director Woody Kim explaining how the film's soundtrack came to be. Fans of movie music will appreciate this detailed glimpse into this often underappreciated element of filmmaking.
All extras are presented in 1.33:1 standard, with film clips properly letterboxed. English subtitles are optional.
There's enough polished mystery on display in "Puzzle" that fans of Korean (or any country's, really) crime thrillers might want to Rent It, if only to see the first, awkward steps of a promising newcomer.