Hide and Seek looks like a horror movie and moves like a thriller. As far as I'm concerned, this is a very good thing since it enables writer/director Huh Jung to liberally borrow and twist genre conventions to make his debut film an unpredictable slice of edge-of-your-seat fun. The climax goes on a bit too long and occasionally feels like it has been plucked out of a different movie altogether but by that point you will likely be too wrung out to care.
After a nerve-racking intro that shows a young woman being meticulously stalked and killed by a strange figure wearing a motorcycle helmet, the film introduces its central characters. Sung-soo (Son Hyun-Joo) is a successful café owner who recently brought his family, including his wife Min-ji (Chun Mi-Sun) and two kids, over from America to settle down in Seoul. He leads a charmed life with all the cushy trappings of an upper crust existence. Despite all the outward indicators of success, Sung-soo seems to be a withdrawn and nervous individual. He suffers from some strong OCD tendencies and is haunted by childhood events that slowly come to light. In essence, they are related to his adoption at a young age and an awful incident his adoptive brother may or may not have been responsible for.
Speaking of Sung-soo's brother, he's the catalyst for the horrific chain reaction that is soon to spiral out of control. You see, Sung-soo and his brother haven't spoken in years but when the brother goes missing, Sung-soo gets drawn into the sad mystery of his solitary existence. We quickly find out that the brother lived in a rundown apartment (in the same building that the opening murder took place in) and was widely considered a creep by his neighbors including Joo-hee (Moon Jung-Hee), an anxious mom trying to protect her little girl from her unsavory environment. If the pervy brother truly is missing, then who's the helmeted killer living in his apartment? Sung-soo and his family will find out the answer to that question the hard way as the murderous stranger follows them back home to splash a little blood onto their immaculately sanitized lives.
For much of its running time, Hide and Seek is a tightly coiled thriller that is fueled by two very reliable power sources: atmosphere and pacing. Huh Jung cultivates the film's off-kilter atmosphere by drawing a sharp line between Sung-soo's sterile modernity and his brother's grimy decay. It's stunning to see how just a short drive to his city's outskirts makes Sung-soo a fish out of water; ill-equipped to deal with a danger he doesn't even understand. By the same token, when Sung-soo and his family bring back something more than they bargained for, we feel the discomfort of two alien worlds colliding. Similarly, the pacing is so propulsive that we readily ignore elements that may strain credibility and focus on the mysterious minutiae that the film nudges our way. This demonstrates an expertise on Huh Jung's part that draws even sharper attention to the fact that this is just his first feature film.
For all that the film gets right (and it really does get so much right), I have some minor concerns with its climax. You see, after the film's central mysteries have been revealed much of its suspense unravels as characters try to survive a home invasion scenario. Don't get me wrong. The climax is still tense and well-staged. It just feels like it belongs in a different movie. For a film that can count unpredictability as one of its biggest strengths, the finale just seems a bit too direct and on-the-nose. As I said though, this isn't enough to sink the ship. The fiery performance from the entire cast (including the young'uns) had me invested enough to question who would survive the terrifying ordeal.