Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Verdict:

One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews

The Thieves (도둑들) – ★★★☆☆

The Thieves (도둑들)

The Thieves (도둑들)

Following a spectacularly daring art heist, criminal Popie (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and his band of thieves – Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), Jampano (Kim Soo-hyeon (김수현) and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook (김해숙) – have too much heat on them to operate in Korea for the foreseeable future. Yet as luck would have it, a job offer in Macau arises from master thief and former associate Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석). Joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo (김혜수), the gang join forces with a team of Chinese bandits to steal a $20 million diamond named  ‘The Tear of the Sun.’ Yet Macao’s plans to sell the diamond back to owner and ruthless mobster Wei Hong, as well as the alternative agendas of everyone within the team, results in a crime caper that goes anything but smoothly.

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist - to steal 'The Tear of the Sun' from a mob boss

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist – to steal ‘The Tear of the Sun’ from a mob boss

When The Thieves was released back in the summer of 2012, it rapidly became a cinematic phenomenon. Within its opening weekend the film had grossed over 2 million admissions; on its ninth day, The Thieves became the most attended Korean film of the 2012 before beating that record four days later by becoming the top selling film of the year. 22 days after release the crime caper joined the elite ’10 million admissions’ club, before passing 12 million 11 days later. At the end of its theatrical run The Thieves had taken almost $83 million at the Korean box office, as well as becoming the second most attended film in Korean history at the time. The success and popularity were unprecedented, yet that aside, is it any good?

The Thieves is a noble effort at producing an entertaining all-star international crime caper. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon has established himself as a success within the genre for quite some time with The Big Swindle and Tazza: The High Rollers, however The Thieves marks an altogether different, more Hollywood-esque, approach for the filmmaker and it’s one that has paid enormous dividends to his career. The pleasure of witnessing some of the Korean industry’s biggest stars interacting and attempting to outwit each other in exotic locations is particularly enjoyable, often – and especially the case for 12 million domestic viewers – taking attention away from the frustratingly convoluted narrative. Juggling such an inordinate amount of actors is an impressive feat and director Choi does his very best to give every character a history and motivation, some of which works well amongst an array of superfluous tangents, and while occasionally entertaining it also serves to create periods where precious little actually occurs as well as to make The Thieves acutely overly long.

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

One of the reasons attributed to the success of The Thieves is the presence of Jeon Ji-hyeon and her flirtatious relationship with heartthrob Kim Soo-hyeon (indeed, their chemistry together later translated into incredibly lucrative TV drama You Came From the Stars). While the crime caper is a great comeback vehicle for Jeon, who has clearly been selected to bring sex appeal both on and off screen, her and Kim Soo-hyeon appear rather sporadically throughout. Instead, it is Kim Hye-soo who steals the limelight in terms of both beauty and allure as well as in forming the emotional centre of the film. Her appearances within the film are magnetic and amongst all the betrayals and double-dealings that arise, her steadfast character provides a stabilising core that is sorely needed. Ultimately however the simply excessive amount of characters weighs the story down, and The Thieves would have benefited from jettisoning several of them – particularly the Chinese criminals, who bring little to the story – and developing the core team instead.

Yet The Thieves really hits its stride in the wonderfully kinetic final act, where all the various parties involved in the diamond heist collide with extreme effect. The acrobatic wire-work battles and blazing stand-offs with criminals brandishing automatic weapons are impressive, and are consistently highly entertaining, silly, fun. It’s pure popcorn cinema, and director Choi does an excellent job in constructing an enjoyable finale while still keeping to the spirit of Korean crime caper.

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Verdict:

The Thieves is an entertaining crime caper, and a real pleasure to witness some of the best stars in Korea go head-to-head in ‘winner take all’ race to the finish. Director Choi Dong-hoon juggles the excessive cast well throughout the convoluted narrative, yet tedium does occasionally appear during the overly long running time. The Thieves is pure popcorn cinema, and consistently entertaining, silly, fun.

★★★☆☆

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Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

The Berlin File (베를린) – ★★★★☆

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The hype generated for writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan’s (류승완) latest action-thriller The Berlin File (베를린) has been fierce. Boasting a stellar line-up of acting talent, and with the director’s last film The Unjust (부당거래) proving popular with audiences and critics alike, curiosity has been fervent as to whether director Ryoo could take his trademark mix of multiple narratives and high-octane action to the next level.

The Berlin File features a genuine evolution in director Ryoo’s style, with some of the most adrenaline-inducing action sequences in recent memory and a huge leap up from his prior films. Yet as with his past filmography, The Berlin File is also stunted by far too many protagonists and a highly convoluted narrative, while his preoccupation with male characters relegates Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현) to the sidelines. However, the director must be congratulated for the scale of the film, not only for filming in a foreign country with the inclusion of several languages, but also for featuring a North Korean spy as the hero of the film.

After a weapons deal in Berlin goes wrong, top North Korean agent Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) attempts to flee the scene. Unbeknownst to him however are the South Korean agents on his tail, led by Jeong Jin-soo (Han Seok-Kyu (한석규). As the two men clash Jong-seong manages to escape back to his safe house and wife Ryeon Jeong-hee (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), who works as a translator – and ‘entertainer’ – at the North Korean consulate. With the new Kim Jong-un government establishing themselves, suspicions arise that a traitor exists in the Berlin offices. Dispatching ruthless North Korean agent Dong Myeong-soo (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find the mole, all the evidence seemingly points to Jeong-hee. Yet Jong-seong and Myeong-soo come into conflict, tensions reach breaking point when the CIA, Mossad, Arabic forces and the South Korean agency all enter the fray, leading to a violent showdown.

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong's life is in danger

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong’s life is in danger

With The Berlin File, director Ryoo has eschewed the reverential martial arts fare of his prior films in favor of the brutal espionage style exhibited within The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, and emerged all the stronger for it. Indeed, the director has adopted many of the features of Paul Greengrass’ spy classics by utilising a moving camera and rapid editing during the lighting-quick action sequences, producing some of best work of his career and representing a true evolution in his abilities. In addition to the exhilarating action and stunt work, the danger of the spy world is wonderfully conveyed. The various betrayals and secret dealings between the disparate agencies produce an intense atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust that continually keeps the audience guessing, harnessing the paranoia of the Cold War era in a contemporary context. By tapping into the fear of the transitioning North Korean government, the story achieves potency as the war for information and power takes on an all-too-real aspect that serves to heighten tension further. Similarly the choice of Berlin is a masterstroke given its history, and director Ryoo films the city as if it were a character itself. The distinctly European style coffee shops and restaurants, the lively streets and the shadowy alleyways all converge to portray the German capital as a hub of culture and intrigue, and one where danger lies at every turn.

Placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of The Berlin File is also an enthralling decision, representing a genuine shift in the relevance of protagonists from the country. Just as Shiri (쉬리) opened up a wave of storytelling regarding ‘brotherhood’ between the two nations, The Berlin File takes it a step further by emphasizing Jong-seong as more active than his South Korean counterpart Jin-soo, despite the corruption that blights them both. As the top spy of the communist country, Ha Jeong-woo gives a great performance and is highly convincing as the cold, detached secret agent. His lines in English and German are delivered with confidence and assuredness and are quite impressive throughout, while his composure during action sequences mark him out as a genuine action star. Ryoo Seung-beom also handles himself particularly well as ruthless agent Dong Myeong-soo, conveying an unsettling villainy with cocky self-assurance that serves as a great counterpoint to Jong-seong’s naivety. It is acutely fitting that Shiri star Han Seok-Kyu features within the film as older South Korean agent Jin-soo, almost forming as an angrier, more frustrated extension of the prior character. While he occasionally stumbles when performing in English the actor conveys the bitter frustration of his situation convincingly. Unfortunately, out of all the protagonists it’s Jeon Ji-hyeon who is short-changed as translator Jeong-hee. The actress performs the role with skill, however it simply isn’t developed enough for her to display her talent, and as such she functions as little more than a damsel in distress.

Jong-seong's wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

Jong-seong’s wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

The issues with Jeon Ji-hyeon’s underdeveloped role highlights the main, and rather large, issue within The Berlin File. There are just far too many characters within the narrative, each containing their own history and motivations for taking part in the proceedings, enacting scores of double-crosses with those around them to achieve their goals. Director Ryoo ambitiously attempts to give service to every faction and individual, yet in doing so he loses focus on the core protagonists and as a result their development suffers. The array of narrative tangents also bogs down the main impetus of Jong-seong’s mission which a great deal of time and effort was spent constructing, while the variety of betrayals and red herrings that occur make the plot a confusing, and somewhat frustrating, viewing experience.

Perhaps for this reason director Ryoo seems unsure how to finish his spy thriller, and as a result the finale boils down to something of a stereotypical stand-off seen in generic action films. To the directors credit, the final act is indeed exciting as gunfire hails from all directions while physical confrontations feature some vicious, wince-inducing moments. Yet despite the exhilarating fun of watching the good and bad guys duke it out in the high stakes battle, it’s difficult not to feel that it is mismatched with what came before, and that a less convoluted plot would have ultimately led to a more rewarding finale.

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he garbained for

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

Verdict:

The Berlin File represents a stylistic evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan, featuring some of the best action and stunt sequences in recent memory and arguably the best of his career. The director captures the paranoia of the spy world with confidence and skill, employing the city of Berlin incredibly well as the location of espionage. While the over-abundance of characters and narrative tangents bog down Jong-seong’s mission, director Ryoo deserves credit for going beyond the themes of ‘brotherhood’ by actually placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of the film, making The Berlin File an exhilarating, if somewhat convoluted, spy thriller.

★★★★☆

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