Gangsters attempting to retire from a life of organised crime is an oft-explored subject within the gangster genre. Leaving the syndicate prompts an array of scenarios. Is it possible to live a ‘normal’ non-violent life? Can the vacuum of power be fulfilled without anarchy? Perhaps most importantly, can the organisation allow the risk of a member, who is privy to countless illegal activities, to live?
Hindsight (푸른 소금) attempts to address such hypothetical questions as second-in-command Doo-heon (두헌, Song Kang-ho 송강호) retires from the syndicate he co-founded to open a restaurant. While the premise has potential and action sequences convey directorial flair, the cliches, absence of identity and lack of narrative cohesion make Hindsight (푸른 소금) quite a disappointment.
Doo-heon (두헌, Song Kang-ho 송강호) lives in the laid-back port city of Busan, studying the culinary arts in order to open his own restaurant. He retired from a Seoul criminal syndicate he co-founded years earlier, turning his back on his former violent lifestyle yet is still friendly with members of the organisation. Doo-heon’s new carefree life has led to forging a friendship with a fellow student in his cooking class, a young and feisty woman named Se-bin (세빈, Sin Se-kyeong 신세경), who often jokingly chastises him for his poor abilities in the kitchen. However things change when word of his best friend, and head of the criminal empire, dies in an accident. As the former second-in-command Doo-heon can lead the syndicate, yet other mob bosses have other ideas and order their mole – Se-bin – to kill Doo-heon.
Hindsight‘s real title ’푸른 소금’ directly translates as ‘blue salt’, both of which are continually referenced through the film. Blue filters and metallic mise-en-scene are often employed by director Lee Hyeon-seung (이현승), conveying the cold and harsh, yet futuristic and stylish, lifestyle of gangster Doo-yeon and his associates. It is through such scenes that Lee Hyeon-seung excels, conveying the isolated sophistication with confidence and the action sequences with real skill. His vision in the final confrontation is also of note, employing blue filters to a stand-off in a field of rice paddies that is visually impressive.
Where Hindsight (푸른 소금) falters is through ‘salt’, a device so overused that it quickly becomes tiresome and is symbolic of the abundance of cliches and narrative shortcomings. Salt is constantly employed in an unsubtle fashion in order to develop the relationship between Doo-heon and Se-bin, but the references are often inorganic and highlight the artificiality of the plot device. When Se-bin constructs ‘salt bullets’ for her targets the predictability becomes painfully clear while a leap in the suspension of disbelief is required for the narrative to remain logical and enjoyable. This unfortunately also applies to the narrative as a whole which contains vast plot holes, thoughtless characterization, and a lack of synergy between the disparate parts. While the amalgamation of different genres is one of the highly entertaining features of Korean cinema, in Hindsight (푸른 소금) it serves to remove any sense of identity and narrative cohesion. When the gangsters search for Doo-hyeon – an easy task considering he stays within his apartment – any sense of threat posed by the assassins is destroyed by the overly-long focus on his relationship with Se-bin. When Se-bin’s dual identity is revealed, a bizarre MTV style montage of her dancing with a friend appears rendering the drama moot. Director/screenwriter Lee Hyeon-seung seemingly can’t decide if Hindsight (푸른 소금) is a gangster film or a love story, with the rigid narrative framework and lack of editing between the two worlds also largely responsible for halting the suture between them.
Characterization and performance are further issues within Hindsight (푸른 소금). Much has been said regarding Sin Se-kyeong’s (신세경) acting skills, with critics claiming she ‘holds her own’ against screen legend Song Kang-ho (송강호). While she certainly gives a competent performance, Hindsight (푸른 소금) is very far from Song Kang-ho at his best. His character schizophrenically flits from overly kind middle-aged man to psychotic maniac, further adding to the lack of cohesion between the romantic and gangster genres within. To his credit Song Kang-ho is charismatic in both capacities, which unfortunately emphasizes the wasted potential of the premise. Sin Se-kyeong has similar problems portraying Se-bin, a cliched female protagonist who is stereotypically beautiful-yet-damaged, one minute stone-cold killer and the next sweet and innocent. Despite this, she performs the role ably.
The same cannot be said for the array of gangsters, all of whom are woefully underdeveloped. In addition to the overabundance of criminals, they are also subjected to a disproportionate amount of screen time compared to Doo-heon and Se-bin equating to a severe absence of threat and drama with the various betrayals and murders that ensue.
Hindsight (푸른 소금) is a problematic entry into the gangster genre due to the lack of cohesion between the disparate genres in conjunction with simplified and underdeveloped characterization. As such the film’s identity and the narrative direction are often highly ambiguous, despite the competent direction particularly in regard to the action sequences, that make Hindsight (푸른 소금) an occasionally stimulating but rather flawed addition.