James Kwon Lee, “Locksmiths” (2015)
Behind the laconic, even mundane title is a surprisingly taut and unbearably suspenseful story with a heartbreaking climax in which two parallel narratives collide with messy and tragic results. Two robbers (Jose Luis Munoz and Joe Fiske) masquerading as locksmiths checking people’s front doors and windows go from house to house in a rich neighbourhood in LA. One of the robbers is tired of scamming people and wants to lead a normal life fixing regular folks’ locks; the other fellow persuades him to do one last job before they retire permanently from a life of crime. They pull up at a mansion and enter the premises where they encounter the sole resident, Tadashi (Yuki Matsuzaki), a well-dressed and well-spoken gentleman, dragging behind a huge plastic garbage bag full of … hmm, dare I say … fresh human body parts …
From here on, chaos erupts and one of the robbers is brought down by the serial killer before he can reach the front door. Viewers can guess which robber got clobbered by the croquet mallet. The other robber calls the cops but the police have already been alerted by the robbers’ previous victims so when the constables arrive, they promptly taser the second robber and bundle him into their car. Just before the police officers leave, one of them (Garikayi Mutambirwa) gazes at the mansion with a long hard look as if his instinct might be telling him that behind the building’s doors and shuttered windows, horrific crimes are being committed.
Kwon Lee skilfully runs two stories together – the short actually begins with Tadashi measuring a victim’s face – to generate a high level of suspense and tension. The setting in an upper class neighbourhood where the robbers prey on wealthy socialites helps to highlight the class differences between the hucksters and the psychopath they unexpectedly run into, and viewers can quickly guess who the police will go after. The cinematography is superb in emphasising the emptiness behind the material wealth of the robbers’ victims and the lack of real warmth and humanity in Tadashi’s life and nature (reflected in the mansion’s furnishings) which may have driven his wife away initially, setting in train the tragedy that befell her and the subsequent trail of crimes Tadashi commits to reconstruct her face and body.
The acting is excellent with Matsuzaki playing the elegant killer as the highlight in his smooth and exact movements as he measures his victims’ faces, his sudden moments of aggression as he lashes out with the croquet mallet (that most genteel of murder weapons) and the changes of expression in his face as he picks up his wife (is she dead or alive?) to dance with her. The banter between the robbers and their subsequent actions when they realise they have met a serial killer delineate how very different they are from each other, one of them a fellow with a conscience and the other who literally leaves him for dead.
In this short film, we see a parable on the society the United States and other Western nations have become, where material wealth and surface gloss hide decay, degeneration and criminal predation, and where those institutions and people who should protect the innocent and vulnerable from evil forces instead serve those forces.