Korean films are an area of cinema becoming ever more noticeable on our radar, thanks to The Good, The Bad, The Weird and the fantastic Oldboy. But will it continue to impress Western audiences?
What we’ve seen in terms of major releases out of South Korea so far has been impressive to the degree that we consider them blockbusters, or cult films, going by those two recent examples good enough to hit British shelves.
If you’ve seen Oldboy, it’s likely you’re very familiar with Choi Min-sik, the actor who landed the role of the dogged-by-his-past protagonist. This time around, he’s not friendly, or confused, or desperate. Just completely psychotic and very hammer-happy as a serial killer by the name of Kyung-chul, who takes the life of a retired police chief’s daughter.
This, of course, is a slight mistake, as her fiancée Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hun, who played “The Bad” Park Chang-yi in The Good, The Bad, The Weird) happens to be a secret agent, and after discovering that she’s not had the pleasant evening he hopes she’s had, he decides to go after her killer.
Putting to one side the interesting role-swap of Min-sik and Byung-hun, the actual subject matter here is your usual serious horror fare, but with the unique Asian twist to it that ensures there’s never a stupid plot point or a predictable moment. Make no bones about it, this is not the happy-go-lucky cowboy film you last saw. This is dark, dark stuff, and powerful simply because the quality of acting allows it to be.
This is an interesting take on the serial-killer-hunt genre too, as the girl’s already dead, so that major motivational factor disappears, replaced by the infinitely more negative: revenge. This was a smart choice, and the inclusion of the Nietzche quote referencing the transformation of those who fight monsters into monsters themselves is apt. Revenge is all consuming, and director Kim Hyun Woo captures the internalised emotion of the two men of the law who lost a daughter, and a fiancée.
The music is poignant, especially in the brief glimpse we are allowed of poor Soo-hyun demonising himself for not being able to save someone he had no hope of saving to begin with.
There’s always the odd moment in films where good characters come off as a little immoral, such as the scene in which his boss tells him he appreciates his return in a fortnight, rather than the offered two months. In a scene meant to emphasise his free time to pursue Kyung-chul, this comes off as a little cold, but helps establish the two-week time limit he has to find the man.
He’s nothing if not efficient. At the very start of the week he starts hitting his sources immediately, witholding no technique when it comes to making them talk, though there are some interesting subtexts woven into his actions that clearly give a strong sense of morality to what he does, punishing the violent, the perverted, and anyone who’s senseless enough not to tell him what he needs to know.
Kyung-chul is utterly remorseless, and a dark, violent killer who has the fortune of having Min-sik’s very innocent face, something that really helped the audience to pity him in Oldboy. However, I can’t help but feel that his way of going about his dark work is pathetically typical of the genre (kidnap innocent woman through the use of force when resisting the urge to off her completely on the spot, take her clothes off, let her lie around naked and possibly sexually assault her for a bit to justify the rating, then chop her to bits) and this is something of a check-list item in horror, which might disappoint those expecting originality from start to finish.
There’s nothing astonishing here, and it does tend to drag as the killer-good-guy confrontation that seems climactic actually occurs less than halfway into the marathon-esque two-plus hours. Oldboy? Game-changing. The Good, The Bad, The Weird? An action-comic masterpiece. I Saw the Devil? A little too by-the-numbers for some, but with the talented sincerity of South Korean actors, something that makes it respectable for its reluctance to cast the wooden in an age of film stars who are rarely selected for their ability to act.