Review: ‘Decibel’ (2022), starring Kim Rae-won, Lee Jong-suk, Jung Sang-hoon, Park Byung-eun and Cha Eun-woo

December 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kim Rae-won in “Decibel” (Photo courtesy of Shaw Entertainment Group)

“Decibel” (2022)

Directed by Hwang In-ho

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Korea, the action film “Decibel” features an all-South Korean cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former lieutenant commander of the Korean Navy is targeted by a terrorist bomber who has planted several bombs in public places, and the bombs will detonate if the decibel reaches a certain level in each place.

Culture Audience: “Decibel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-paced action flicks that occasonally get far-fetched but will keep viewers in suspense.

Lee Jong-suk in “Decibel” (Photo courtesy of Shaw Entertainment Group)

If you want to watch a movie about a race against time before several bombs go off, then “Decibel” is fairly good choice. It has some predictable moments, but the thrilling action and solid acting performances bring this suspenseful ‘hunt for a terrorist bomber’ movie into an above-average level. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking in the story though. The movie has a few plot twists that aren’t as surprising as intended.

Directed by Hwang In-ho (who co-wrote the “Decibel” screenplay with Lee Jin-hoon), “Decibel” sticks to a familiar formula that similar movies have already followed. An unhinged terrorist is setting off bombs and is threatening to kill more people by bombing. Someone with a background in law enforcement or the military emerges as the leader who is most likely to find the culprit. And before the end of the movie, there are many chase scenes and physical fights.

In “Decibel,” the bomber has used the tactic of planting his bombs in public areas and making his bombs get triggered if the decibel in the area reaches a certain level. The bomber has decided to target Kang Do-young (played by Kim Rae-won), a former lieutenant commander of the Korean Navy. Do-young, a respected and retired military official, has been hailed as a hero who was credited with saving 22 of the 44 men who died on a sinking submarine ship named Roks Halla that was under command.

The official cause of the ship sinking was that it was a rare accident. There are flashbacks throughout the movie that show what happened on the ship, which was trapped underwater for several days. One of the Korean Navy officers who was part of the Roks Halla crew was Jeon Tae-ryong (played by Cha Eun-woo), a submarine sound detection officer whose skills were crucial in determining the activities and sound levels outside the sunken submarine.

And when Do-young starts getting calls from an anonymous bomber who dares Do-young to find the bombs before they explode, it’s pretty obvious that Do-young is being targeted for a reason. What the bomber looks like is revealed in the trailer for “Decibel” and early on in the movie, but it’s not revealed until near the end of the film what his motives are. It’s later revealed that is name is Jung Tae-sung (played by Lee Jong-suk), who remains anonymous to Do-young and law-enforcement officials up until a certain point in the movie.

Tae-sung communicates mainly through phone calls that he places to Do-young. Tae-sung knows a lot about Do-young and the Korean Navy to make it obvious that Tae-sung has some connection to the Korean Navy. This terrorist bomber is cold and calculating. However, the movie makes it too obvious why Tae-sung chose Do-young to get these phone calls about the bombs.

Tae-sung has placed bombs in places such as a public aquarium, a stadium during a soccer match, a public swimming pool and a playground. Tae-sung calls Do-young to taunt him and give him somewhat of a head start to see if So-young will be successful in getting the place evacuated and finding the bomb on time before it detonates. In one of the movie’s gripping sequences, Tae-sung tells Do-young that he has to choose between going to the public swimming pool or the playground to find the planted bomb, because Tae-sung has decided that both bombs could go off at the same time.

Do-young isn’t on the hunt alone for this terrorist bomber. Cha Young-han (played by Park Byung-eun) is the agent in charge of the Defense Security Support Command. Viewers of “Decibel” will see a lot of scenes with Young-han running around in business suits with other suit-wearing agents, as he barks orders and gets frustrated that Do-young has taken it upon himself to be the hero of this mission. Young-han is a bomb expert, but Do-young is not, as Young-han likes to remind Do-young.

Do-young also gets an unlikely sidekick during this frantic search for the bombs and the bomber. A journalist named Oh Dae-oh (played by Jung Sang-hoon) has decided to tag along with Do-young because Dae-oh wants an exclusive, eyewitness story about the hunt for this bomber. Do-young thinks Dae-oh is an annoying distraction and tries to get this persistent journalist to leave. But Dae-oh refuses to leave, which results in multiple scenes of (action movie cliché alert) the untrained person who is along for the ride with the hero and gets frightened and agitated the most because this newbie is not prepared to fight the villains.

“Decibel” also has another cliché subplot that involves who gets kidnapped and taken hostage. Do-young’s wife is Jang Yoo-jung (played by Lee Sang-hee), who happens to be an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) sergeant for the Korean Navy. Yoo-jang and Do-young have a daughter named Seol-Young, who is about 9 or 10 years old. You can easily guess that Do-young’s family members will become targets of the bomber too.

Dae-oh’s wife (played by Kim Seul-ki, also known as Kim Seul-gi) is a police officer, who doesn’t believe that Dae-oh is on this dangerous mission, until she and her colleagues find out in a way that is of great embarrassment to her. The relationship between Dae-oh and his wife is the source of the movie’s comic relief. Dae-oh feels somewhat emasculated because he’s married to a police officer, so he feels he has to do something brave to prove his masculinity. These two spouses often bicker but they also love each other, which is why their arguments aren’t meant to be taken that seriously in the movie.

All of the cast members plays their roles in ways that make “Decibel” more interesting than a typical action flick. The obvious standouts are Kim and Lee as the “hero” and the “villain,” who are caught in a furious competition to outwit each other, with one character wanting to save lives, and the other character wanting to destroy lives. Kim is very skilled at conveying the intense pressure that Do-young feels in this life-or-death mission, while Lee has a flair for portraying a criminal who is so obsessed with his intentions, he no longer values human life. Jung is also quite good in his “Decibel” role where he has to balance drama and comedy as a journalist who gets more than he expected in pursuing an exclusive news story.

The high-octane action sequences of “Decibel” bring a lot of sizzle to this movie that has a very simple concept. The concept is wrapped in layers that unfold mainly in the flashbacks that reveal more clues about the terrorist’s motives. Although the answer to this mystery isn’t original or exceptionally clever, “Decibel” still brings some emotional gravitas to a story that could have easily been a hollow action movie if the filmmakers and cast members had mishandled everything.

Shaw Entertainment Group released “Decibel” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on November 16, 2022.

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