The supernatural isn’t the only way to make something horrifying; sometimes, all you have to do is take something that we all have and take for granted. For Unlocked, the Netflix original thriller —and I’d argue horror because boy did make me want to put my phone in a lock box at night— a simple phone is all you need to turn a life completely inside out. Directed and written by Kim Tae Joon, the film stars Yim Si-wan, Chun Woo-hee, and Kim Hee-won.
Starting with one lost phone, Unlocked uses technology and how much access we allow it to have in our lives to weave a thrilling mystery filled with obsession, revenge, and pure malice. When she falls asleep on a bus on the way home from work, Nami (Chun Woo-hee) loses her smartphone. It has her contacts, her social media, her schedule, and that’s only the surface of her life that small little square contains. When Nami gets a call about her phone being turned into a repair shop, she thinks the oddity of a kind stranger may be out of place but she’s thankful to have her life back in order, until it all starts to unravel.
Unbeknownst to her, Jun-yeong (Yim Si-wan), a worker at the store has returned Nami’s phone but only after he installs spyware…and she isn’t the first this has happened to. By tracking her everyday life, he learns all he can about Nami— her whereabouts, hobbies, tastes, work life, finances, and social network — and approaches her by concealing his true identity. At the same time, police detective Ji-man (Kim Hie-won) finds traces of Jun-yeong at a murder crime scene and secretly starts investigating him not long after, suspecting the worst and putting Na-mi in more peril than just being surveilled.
Unlocked uses the way we trust our smartphones and the increasingly invasive way they contain our lives to make the audience question just how much access Jun-yeong has to Nami. Starting small, we can tell that Jun-yeong can see her screen as she uses the phone. He can read her texts in real-time, record her passwords, and see her bank account. Next, we see that he can see her through the front camera, which ramps up the intensity of the invasion. And then, finally, we learn that he can operate her phone too. He can ruin her work life by sending messages, revealing her fake Instagram account, withdrawing money, and just about anything else. Each level that Jun-yeong digs deeper into Nami’s life ramps up the tension, turning the dial while the serial killing subplot increases the physical stakes as well.
Blending in screen techniques, director Kim expertly uses a phone screen to build tension subtly. Instead of spending ample time watching Jun-yeong himself behind the computer screen the entire time, we see Na-mi going about her life, but with her phone flashing through screens. As she talks with her boss, you can see it in the background, scrolling through texts. While she sleeps, you can see the speed with which Jun-yeong is learning everything he can about her, the phone charging above her bed. While the use of screens to showcase the apps used and the messages sent help to show how connected the real world and the virtual are, it’s these small moments of boundary violations that feel like an encroaching doom as Nami simply goes about her life. We know something that she doesn’t as an audience, making the dread intensify.
Without spoiling a twist of a third act, Unlocked’s only pacing issues come into play when the subplot starts to ramp up and the search for a killer comes into focus, and threads between what’s happening to Nami begin connecting to a large web of crimes. While positioning her in a larger picture helps the film differentiate itself from a simple stalker plot, it does struggle to keep the reins of the two strong narratives being driven almost completely independent of each other until the last 20 minutes of the film. That said, when they crash into each other, the violent fallout was well worth the journey.
Unlocked isn’t necessarily doing anything new in the surveillance thriller or horror space, but it is effectively using technology to drive fear, so much so that I was ready to not sleep with my own phone in my room at one point. While some parts are expected, Yim Si-wan and Chun Woo-hee deliver performances that not only sell every emotion but excel against each other as opposing forces. If you’re looking for a thrilling watch instead of a bubbly rom-com this February, Unlocked is one to turn your attention to.
Unlocked is streaming exclusively on Netflix on February 17, 2023.
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Unlocked isn’t necessarily doing anything new in the surveillance thriller or horror space, but it is effectively using technology to drive fear, so much so that I was ready to not sleep with my own phone in my room at one point. While some parts are expected, Yim Si-wan and Chun Woo-hee deliver performances that not only sell every emotion but excel when faced directly against each other as opposing forces. If you’re looking for a thrilling watch instead of a bubbly rom-com this February, Unlocked is one to turn your attention to.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.