Lee Jongsuk & Cha Eunwoo Shine In Taut Action Thriller

Jan 29, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Decibel Review: Lee Jongsuk & Cha Eunwoo Shine In Taut Action Thriller

Decibel boasts loud explosions and a stressful race against the clock, but its secret weapon lies in Lee Jongsuk & Cha Eunwoo’s emotional scenes.

Cha Eun-woo and Lee Jong-suk in Decibel

Decibel may be marketed as a thrilling action drama, but beneath the trappings of the genre, it explores how trauma and loss shape the choices of survivors. Directed by Hwang In-ho, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lee Jin-hoon, the film follows on the heels of Korean thrillers such as Decision to Leave and Project Wolf Hunting that have pushed the boundaries of their narrative conventions. While the newest entry in the country’s cinematic canon may not be as experimental as its predecessors, its talented cast helps it stand out in a crowd. In particular, though Decibel boasts loud explosions and a stressful race against the clock, its secret weapon lies in Lee Jong-suk & Cha Eun-woo’s emotional scenes.

The story follows former Navy commander Kang Do-young (Kim Rae-won), who retired from his position after an unexplained tragedy took out a large part of his crew. On the anniversary of the terrible event, however, he receives a mysterious call (from Jong-suk, who remains hidden in plain sight through most of the action) warning him a bomb has been planted in the area. Unable to contact authorities for fear of retaliation, he is forced to deal with the incoming threat and the hidden terrorist on his own. What makes the bomb special—and gives Decibel its name—is that it is activated by sound, and any noise above a certain level will cut its timer in half. This caveat makes Do-young’s mission all the more urgent as more bombs are placed in children’s playgrounds, public swimming pools, and even football stadiums.

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Kim Rae-won in Decibel

Director Hwang took a long break after filming 2014’s Monster, which starred Kim Go-eun and Lee Min-ki, and the rust is perhaps felt when certain action sequences in Decibel last longer than they should. They are technically well-executed and build suspense as the story progresses, but they lack the critical emotional impact of the flashback sequences that make up the meat of the story. The mystery of the terrorist’s identity is wrapped up in the tragedy that precedes the present-day events, as well as Do-young’s ambiguous culpability in the incident. But since the protagonist cannot explain himself to the unseen villain, who is himself easy to guess from the promotional material, Rae-won is not able to utilize his dramatic chops to their fullest extent and must convey his inner turmoil and confusion in subtle ways.

He is certainly up to the task, but the focus on preventing the next tragedy and defusing the next explosive alienates viewers from him to a degree. Thankfully, he has the incompetent but well-meaning reporter Oh Dae-oh (Jung Sang-hoon) by his side to inject some comedy and ask questions on behalf of the audience. That alone would not be enough to elevate Decibel above a typical action thriller, and indeed the main takeaway from the film rests with the flashbacks interspersed throughout. The film opens in the past, with the youngest member of Do-young’s submarine crew, Jeon Tae-ryong (Eun-woo, making his movie debut), joking that his commander acts more immaturely than he does. This leads to a heartwarming sequence of camaraderie between the Navy officers that implies everything the reticent hero has lost.

Cha Eun-woo in Decibel

As Decibel hurtles towards its inevitable face-off and conclusion, putting Do-young’s family members in danger in the process, the flashbacks peel back the complicated layers of the submarine incident at the heart of the story. While the dynamic between Eun-woo and Jong-suk’s characters is not explored as deeply as it could have been, their brief moments together create a heartbreaking backstory and a twisted justification for his maniacal choices in the present. While both actors shine in Decibel’s tense and tragic scenes, Eun-woo’s performance is the biggest surprise given his short filmography thus far primarily includes lighthearted romantic dramas like True Beauty.

That’s not to say that Jong-suk isn’t equally impressive, of course. He masterfully depicts the stark contrast between his character’s calm and supportive attitude in the flashbacks and his hardened desperation in the present, highlighting how his trauma has broken him down. In the end, that’s what Decibel is really about, and it’s a theme that touches its protagonist and antagonist in equal measure. Neither man will ever be the same after what they go through together, but the way they each choose to heal is what divides them forever and seals their respective fates. Thanks to this powerful narrative thread, and the performances of actors playing the lost Navy officers, viewers will come away with plenty of food for thought.

Next: Decision To Leave Review: Drama Boasts Enthralling Lead Performances

Decibel premiered at Asian World Film Festival on November 12 and is releasing in limited theaters on Friday, December 2. The film is 110 minutes long and is not rated.

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