KOREAN MOVIE REVIEW:
I recently watched this movie (yes I am following Kang Dong-won around movie land) and although I really did quite enjoy it, it was not at all what I had expected.
I found it to have a fair few weird plot holes and also some rather strange transitions in tone between the start, middle and end, making it seem like it was filmed almost as three separate movies.
It was like they couldn't quite figure out what sort of film they wanted to make and so tried to squash a heap of different ideas and themes in where they didn't really fit, not in a particularly smooth or subtle way either, leaving me with a feeling almost like whiplash. A little jarring to say the least.
On the other hand though, it certainly made for an interesting film, leaving me constantly unsure of where the plot was heading, never able to get a clear picture of what the endgame was, either regarding the plot or the general theme of the movie itself. Was it nail bitingly tense? Was it a funny and amusing buddy cop flick? Was it a serious and moving drama about two men learning to trust each other against all odds? Or was it a terrifying political thriller, filled with violence and killers?
The answer of course, is that it was all those things, even with a weirdo tacked on ending sequence which was not just unlikely, but also heartwarming. Weird.
Whoah. The start of this film was just so so tense.
It sucked me in straight away, beautifully shot in a stark and bleak way that emphasised the alien nature of cities. Everyone living so close to each other, but never really knowing anything about their neighbors or the strangers they pass on the street everyday.
This mood sets up our main characters, Lee Han-gyoo, a NIS agent deeply involved in tracking a mysterious North Korean agent nicknamed 'Shadow' and also Song Ji-won, a seemingly ordinary man who is in fact another North Korean sleeper spy.
I really liked the way these two characters were fleshed out; Han-gyoo being a man on a mission to capture a killer, but so eager to receive the credit and glory from the culmination of that mission that he is willing to put his agents in serious danger rather than admit he needs help by calling for backup at the crucial moment, and Ji-won, slow and methodical and a true patriot (scary), but still a man with a strong core of morality, consistently deciding himself what is right and wrong rather then just believing his orders to be right. But in saying that, he does believe utterly in the cause and so therefore is still a dangerous man.
I was literally on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what was unfolding before me, and the sudden upfront violence used to culminate the opening segment left me gasping, being both shocking and a little bit terrifying.
The middle veered off course so entirely that I just had no clue what was happening. The tone is drastically lighter, there seems to be much less at stake so watching was not nearly as stressful, and the plot meandered along with little direction. Having said all that though, it was still lots of fun to watch and I got a real 'buddy cop' movie feel from this segment of the movie.
We shift years forward in time, which sees Han-gyoo now a small time detective working mainly on missing (mail order) wife cases, having been fired from his former position due to his absolute mishandling of the North Korean spy case, in which he not only lost all the suspects (including the totally scary and insane Shadow) but also resulted in multiple deaths of his subordinates.
He (very randomly) runs into Ji-won, now living under a different name, and both pretend not to recognise the other, thinking they can use this situation to their advantage. The fight scene which is the cause of their reunion is lots of fun and Kang Dong-won is suitably (totally) awesome as the former spy, now abandoned by his country due to a security leak they presume was him.
When Han-gyoo offers Ji-won a job they both keep up the pretense of ignorance regarding each others identity, and what follows is a series of almost vignette's outlining their changing relationship, from suspicion through to pity and anger, and finally not exactly total trust, but a tentative version of it. Which turns out to be enough.
This segment was almost like a guilty pleasure for me. What can I say, it was fun watching Ji-won's tortured and grief ridden former spy struggling with his morale code in his new job, not to mention his slightly obnoxious new boss, whose actions towards Ji-won were quite silly (locking himself to the kitchen counter with handcuffs and generally just being quite weird). There were lots of amusing moments as the two bonded, lots of silly hijinks and fun fight scenes, followed then by another huge tonal turnaround as it is revealed Ji-won has a family back in North Korea whom he hasn't seen in 7 years, a wife and daughter who he is trying to smuggle into South Korea. Played for the emotional 'feels' this plot turn also gives us (and Han-gyoo) a real insight into Ji-won's character and motivations.
And it totally works in the 'feels' department by the way.
I was so sad.... sob.
THE END:And then we have the climax of the film.
Everything comes to a head as Ji-won discovers that Han-gyoo knew who he was all along (well...duh!) but he also learns that Han-gyoo is no longer hunting him, rather he wants to help. This doesn't really go very well however and after an exciting chase scene from a hospital where the stakes rocket back to sky high we are left with a rooftop confrontation between the mysterious (and psychotic) Shadow and Ji-won.
Now this is a little embarrassing to admit, but that moment where Han-gyoo runs blindly onto the roof in a bid to save Ji-won from Shadow, but only finds Ji-won standing there all alone (looking creepy and manic) totally threw me. I thought some sort of M.Night Shyamalan twist had happened and it was Ji-won all along who was a murdering murderer......
Alas this was not the case and although they did try and fool me into thinking Ji-won had snapped by having him stab Han-gyoo, it turns out really he was just stabbing himself and therefore was still a totally awesome guy. And then he fell off a building.
As ridiculous as that all sounds, it was actually pretty tense. Shadow is such a disturbing character, not just some two dimensional political statement against North Korea but an absolute psychotic killer proper, someone who enjoys the feeling of it. He was used to his full potential in this scene, messing with Ji-won's head and being quite threatening for a small old man.
I was pretty upset at this ending, though I did like the idea that the two men had now come so far as to trust eachother and even make a sacrifice to save the other. This whole scene had me squealing with fear and horror as the blood and violence added up to a pretty intense (and sad) final scene in the alleyway.
THAT OTHER END:And then we have that other climax of the film. On the plane. Behind the newspaper.
But also...thank god!! None of it makes any sense whatsoever, (why isn't he dead? Why aren't his family dead considering he was classed as a defector for 7 years? Why are they all on a plane together?) but gosh do I just not care at all!
THOUGHTS:I am not sure that the changes in tone were exactly bad things (though I am sure some critics would argue they were), but I must admit they didn't really make for a very cohesive movie on the whole. Also I can definitely see that this would have been an overall much better movie had it ended with the scene in the alley, though I am not sure if it would have actually made me like it more. I am a sucker for a happy ending after all, even it happens at the total expense of the plot apparently.
For me none of the above gripes straight out equal a fail of a movie, as there was plenty to interest and entertain here. I have also read it was a huge box office hit in Korea meaning a hell of a lot of other people liked it too and so although I obviously had some issues with this one, I would perhaps agree with the masses and say it definitely was a fun watch, just maybe not quite as serious as it wanted to be.