Northern Limit Line (연평해전) – ★☆☆☆☆

Northern Limit Line (연평해전)

Northern Limit Line (연평해전)

Northern Limit Line is based on the true story of Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, a confrontation that occurred between North and South Korean forces on June 29th, 2002 in the disputed waters in the Yellow Sea.

In June 2002, South Koreans are united in World Cup fervour as the national team progresses further and further towards the final. Yet while the general public are rejoicing at the sporting event, the navy continue to patrol the maritime border near Yeonpyeong Island. Despite a few incidents involving North Korean fishermen, Captain Yoon Yeong-ha’s (Kim Moo-yeol (김무열) crew, comprised of Sergeant Han Sang-gook (Jin Goo (진구) and newbie medic Corporal Park Dong-hyeok (Lee Hyun-woo (이현우) amongst others, are in high spirits – until a boat from the North engages them in a surprise, brutal assault.

Camaraderie is strong as the crew celebrate South Korea's World Cup achievements

Camaraderie is strong as the crew celebrate South Korea’s World Cup achievements

An unadulterated exercise in propaganda, Northern Limit Line deserves recognition for its crowdfunded origins and helmer Kim Hak-soon’s dedication to bring it to the big screen, yet precious little else. Shoddily written, poorly directed, and featuring some of the worst editing in recent memory, the war thriller is a poor testament to those who lost their lives in the conflict, with the only saving grace arriving in the form of the emotionally charged documentary footage tacked on in the film’s dying moments. Conservative Koreans however are likely to find much to enjoy.

Northern Limit Line is clearly a passion project for writer/director Kim Hak-soon, who spent seven years developing the project as well as generating roughly a third of the $6 million budget through crowdfunding, an impressive feat to be sure. It’s bizarre then that during that time frame the script wasn’t cultivated into a coherent whole, one that details and examines the complex political situation of the era alongside a humanist angle facilitated by the inter-personal relationships between the crew. Instead, Kim has opted to remove any shred of context from the narrative, simplifying events to a base ‘good South Korean vs. evil North Korean’ rhetoric that embarrassingly evokes memories of ’80s cinema. The Northerners are consistently represented grimacing, scowling, or with facial scarring to emphasise their villainy, whilst their darkened uniforms and blackened boats signify their macabre intentions; the Southerns meanwhile typically joke and play pranks, are faithful to their loved ones, and live a generally idealistic life. Such visual cues, removed from political context and intricacies, results in Northern Limit Line conforming to a mere piece of propaganda, the likes of which were similarly present in 2014 box office hit The Admiral, and are becoming an increasingly disturbing cinematic trend.

Medic Dong-hyeok prepares to battle the grimacing North Korean navy

Medic Dong-hyeok prepares to battle the grimacing North Korean navy

Scribe/helmer Kim has routinely stated that his desire to complete Northern Limit Line was due to lack of public awareness regarding the young men who lost their lives during the conflict. It’s a noble resolution, yet his endeavours ultimately fall short. Throughout the narrative the characterisation is more akin to a poor TV drama than film, as the lives of the officers are constructed employing melodramatic cliche after cliche specifically designed to force audiences to engage emotionally, yet the far-from-subtle manner utilised does just the opposite. Each member of the crew has threadbare development with resolutions consistently unanswered, however as they all feature occasional scenes caring for an impoverished loved one, audiences are expected to invest in their respective trajectories.

The myriad of superfluous protagonists compound this lack of engagement further, as random naval officers and civilians alike enter a scene, utter a few words of dialogue, and then exit without ever really stating their purpose. A female officer (performed by Cheon Min-hee (천민희) exemplifies this issue as she interacts with the central cast, yet adds no agency to the story other than to appear attractive.

The editing in Northern Limit Line is simply appalling. The film frequently jumps between the officers patrolling the Yellow Sea and the World Cup celebrations occurring in Seoul to confusing effect, and doesn’t have any baring on the story. If anything, director Kim seems to be implying that the Korean public are to blame for caring about a sporting event rather than the conflict that arises.

As Northern Limit Line enters the final act, the assault upon which the film is based arises. The battle is competently constructed and immersive, yet also overly long and disorientating due to the direction. Ironically it is after the battle scenes that the war film finds its saving grace – the real-life documentary footage of the fallen officers being laid to rest. It’s impossible not to be moved by such emotive scenes as the anguish expressed by bereaved families is palpable, while the interviews with survivors – which oddly appear during the end credits – are also deeply poignant tributes to their comrades.

The battle sequence reveals the horrors of warfare

The battle sequence reveals the horrors of warfare

Verdict:

Northern Limit Line is an unadulterated exercise in cinematic propaganda, one that construct a simplistic account of the terrible event by removing the complex political context of the era. Crudely written, poorly directed and horribly edited, the maritime war film’s only redeeming feature is the poignant real-life documentary footage that deeply touching. Northern Limit Line is one for hardcore nationalists only.

★☆☆☆☆

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C’est Si Bon (쎄시봉) – ★★☆☆☆

C'est si bon (쎄시봉)

C’est si bon (쎄시봉)

Twin Folio, the legendary ’60s duo that emerged from Seoul music cafe C’est Si Bon, is due to be the subject of a television show. Yet when music producer Lee Jang-hee, the man responsible for their creation, is quizzed about the rumour of an original third member, he begins to reminisce about the era. Back in the ’60s, C’est Si Bon was the hottest place in the city to listen to folk song competitions. With his silky voice Yun Hyeong-ju (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) was the star of the cafe, until newcomer Song Chang-sik (Jo Bok-rae (조복래) instigates a rivalry. With their clashing egos a duo would be impossible, and as such Jang-hee (Jin Goo (진구) enlists talented country boy Oh Gun-tae (Jeong Woo (정우) to make a trio. Their inability to work together changes when beautiful aspiring actress Min Ja-yeong (Han Hyo-joo (한효주) enters the club, inspiring them to collaborate and become one of the most successful bands of the era.

The original trio learn to collaberate due to their muse Ja-yeong

The original trio learn to collaberate due to their muse Ja-yeong

C’est Si Bon is something of a love letter to the vibrant music scene of 1960s/70s Seoul, one that attempts to capture the spirit of the era through the story of the renowned cafe. Generally it succeeds, particularly in the opening act as there is much enjoyment to be had in witnessing the titular music arena being introduced, the band coming together and egos clashing. The C’est Si Bon cafe is a wonderfully charismatic and dynamic place due to some quite lovely set and costume design, helmed competently by director Kim Hyeon-Seok (김현석) who is likely hoping for the same success as his prior romantic endeavour Cyrano Agency.

Yet following an enjoyable 30 minutes, the film eschews the fun and vitality of the music scene to descend into a cliched romantic tale. As the members of the band all fall in love with Ja-yeong and attempt to out-perform each other to win her affection, the story moves away from the enjoyment of the band’s origins to become a standard rom-com. To be fair to Han Hyo-joo, she is absolutely stunning throughout and has rarely looked better, however due to the focus applied to her as the muse of so many admirers, C’est Si Bon consistently feels like a vanity project for the actress. Ironically however, as Ja-yeong tends to use and manipulate the men in her life as they constantly try to impress her, the result is an attractive but not a particularly likeable lead female protagonist which significantly lessens the romantic appeal.

Ja-yeong is the muse of seemingly everyone at music cafe C'est Si Bon

Ja-yeong is the muse of seemingly everyone at music cafe C’est Si Bon

Recently in Korean cinema a greater number of films are being produced with older audiences in mind which is welcome news for diversity, and C’est Si Bon fits neatly within the paradigm. Yet the film also perpetuates the disturbing trend of romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past. Curfews, police brutality and authoritarianism, and even scenes of intimidation reminiscent of prelude to torture, feature within the narrative. However due to the romantic-comedy contrivances of the film such issues are presented as nostalgia, alarmingly either employed for humour or simply glossed over.

Things change from bad to worse for C’est Si Bon in the final act through the inclusion of scenes set in America, years after the rise and fall of the famous cafe. Apart from feeling acutely tacked on and frankly dull, the sequences are unintentionally, and quite literally, laughable. For instance, during highly emotional scenes between veteran actors Kim Hee-ae and Kim Yoon-seok are some incredibly poorly timed interludes by bad American actors that simply destroy all tension and instead generate laughter. As such, C’est Si Bon ends on a sour note, despite the initial enjoyment and promise displayed in the first act.

Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America

Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America

Verdict:

C’est Si Bon is a love letter to the vibrant music scene that existed in Korea in the 1960s, with a particularly enjoyable first act that introduces the styles and catchy music of the era, as well as the formation of the band Twin Folio. Yet director Kim Hyeon-seok’s film oddly eschews such promise by later descending into bland rom-com cliches and romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past, before ending with an unintentionally funny and quite poor finale.

★★☆☆☆

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Epitaph (기담) – ★★★☆☆

Epitaph (기담)

Epitaph (기담)

In 1979, aging professor Park Jeong-nam is made aware that Ansaeng Hospital, the institution in which he began to forge his career, is due to be demolished. At home, the professor opens an old photo album featuring pictures from his days as an intern there, and begins to reminisce about an awful four day period that occurred in 1942, back when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. He recalls how as a young man (Jin Goo (진구) he developed an attraction with the corpse of a beautiful young girl; how a car crash survivor named Asako (Ko Joo-yeon (고주연) was haunted by the ghosts of the tragic event; and of brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Kim Dong-won (Kim Tae-woo (김태우) and the troubled relationship with his wife Dr. Kim In-yeong (Kim Bo-kyeong (김보경).

Jeong-nam becomes intrigued by the beauty of a young corpse

Jeong-nam becomes intrigued by the beauty of a young corpse

Epitaph is an attractive and unsettling horror film, one which is in actuality an omnibus of short supernatural stories loosely tied together so as to masquerade as a feature. This particular narrative structure is one that directors Jeong Beom-sik (정범식) and Jeong Sik (정식) – more commonly known as the Jeong Brothers – returned to in both Horror Stories and its sequel, yet Epitaph manages to marry the disparate events more successfully than their later attempts.

The narrative within Epitaph features three short horror tales set within the confines of the Ansaeng (safe life) Hospital, bookended by scenes of the now-elderly Jeong-nam as he recollects events from his past. As the film jumps between stories and across timelines, the narrative, though entertaining, ultimately becomes a convoluted mess that is often frustrating to endure, and is in desperate need of a re-edit. Yet that said, the three episodes themselves are competently portrayed and engaging. Initially Epitaph focuses on young Jeong-nam as an intern struggling with the gory specifics involved in conducting autopsies, whose attention is captivated by the beauty of a young corpse. The potential of the premise isn’t capitalised upon however as any sense of growing obsession is curiously absent, and as such is primarily used to help set the stage for the other two shorts. The notable highlight of the film comes in the form of the second story involving traffic accident survivor Asako. Attempts are made to combine both a psychological drama with traditional scares and the tale somewhat succeeds. Lastly, a doctor becomes suspicious of his wife as a vicious serial killer is on the loose. In each case, the directors simply capture the events that transpire without managing to generate the required tension and suspense, resulting in a horror film that, aside from a few unsettling moments, is crucially lacking in scares.

Youngster Asako is haunted by the ghosts of a car accident

Youngster Asako is haunted by the ghosts of a car accident

Epitaph is additionally guilty of not only employing a wide range of cliches, but also rather blatant replications from superior horrors that often border on plagiarism. It’s a shame the Jeong Brothers have opted for such an approach as the set-up, and particularly the time period, lends itself well to the creation of a uniquely Korean horror film. Yet through the incorporation of techniques found better elsewhere, Epitaph never moves beyond being simply entertaining and into the realm of genuinely frightening.

Ultimately the real power of the film lies onscreen within the compositions and shots, which are consistently impressive throughout. At the 2007 Blue Dragon Awards, such prowess was recognised as Yun Nam-ju was presented with the Best Cinematography award, while Best Art Direction went to Kim Yu-jeong and Lee Min-bok. Each location is wonderfully constructed to convey the 1942 era credibly, with the aesthetics of each tale generating a unique, yet interconnected, atmosphere. The hospital interiors including the hallways and the mortuary are of particularly of note in the first tale, which bridge seamlessly into the second and third stories as youngster Asako receives treatment while the married doctors conduct their work. Furthermore, Asako’s nightmares allow the artistic direction to move into more surrealist territory as well as incorporate some wonderfully composed exterior shots, which links well to the otherworldly Japanese-esque arenas in the final story. In each instance the designers manage to simultaneously articulate the mood and sensibilities of each tale while linking it within the context of the whole, making Epitaph quite the visual treat.

Dangerous neurosurgery is conducted at the institution

Dangerous neurosurgery is conducted at the institution

Verdict:

Epitaph is a competent and visually attractive horror film by directors Jeong Beom-sik and Jeong Sik, better known as the Jeong brothers. The omnibus film features three tales that are generally unsettling rather than frightening, largely due to the haphazard narrative structure and employment of cliched tropes from superior examples of the genre. Epitaph is a solid, though unremarkable, addition to the K-horror canon.

★★★☆☆

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The Target (표적) – ★★★☆☆

The Target (표적)

The Target (표적)

On a dark and rainy night, a shoot-out transpires in the back streets of Seoul. As a mysterious man is chased through the streets he is shot, and hit by a car. Taken to hospital, doctor Lee Tae-joon (Lee Jin-wook (이진욱) treats the man who police identify as ex-military man Baek Yeo-hoon (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡), wanted in connection with murder. However Tae-joon’s problems are just beginning, as later that night his pregnant wife Hee-joo (Jo Yeo-jeong (조여정) is abducted, with the kidnapper demanding  Yeo-hoon in exchange for her safe return. Yet as Tae-joon attempts to hand over the fugitive, a special task force lead by Chief Song (Yoo Joon-sang (유준상) are called in, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse begins.

Yeo-hoon is on the run, but from what and from whom are a mystery

Yeo-hoon is on the run, but from what and from whom are a mystery

The Target (표적) is a remake of critically acclaimed French thriller Point Blank (2010), which clearly must have impressed the French for the film premiered in the Midnight Screening section at the Cannes Film Festival. Quite why, however, is something of a mystery as Director Chang’s version is an extremely mediocre action film, taking the basis of the superior original and altering it to make a very competent, solid, and enjoyable action romp yet one that fades from memory with ease.

The Target begins well, setting a dark ominous tone in which the violence is located as well as for the mysteries to originate. The impressive tension continues through to the hospital scenes, where the introduction (and indeed, inclusion) of no-nonsense female detective Jeong Yeong-joo (Kim Seong-ryeong (김성령) and deputy Soo-jin (Jo Eun-ji (조은지) are a refreshingly welcome addition in a genre that is often overly-masculine, with their stern, efficient attempts to uncover Yeo-hoon’s identity and his role in the murder case one of the highlights of the thriller. Yet following a hospital breakout sequence, the tone of the film never stays consistent as director Chang attempts to juggle the abundance of characters and their respective narrative arcs, and as such the excitement begins to wane. Ironically however as the pace is generally handled well the film never becomes stale, resulting in a film that is difficult to fully invest in but entertaining nonetheless.

The situation gets complicated when Detective Jeong clashes with Chief Song

The situation gets complicated when Detective Jeong clashes with Chief Song

A similar accusation can also be aimed at the action sequences within The Target. While there are plenty of physical confrontations to enjoy, the sequences are always rudimentary and uninspired, failing to capitalise on the premise or even simply to make the film stand out from the vast number of action-thrillers that already exist. Yeo-hoon, for example, is supposedly an ex-military man with a decade of experience yet his fighting prowess rarely extends beyond that of an average man with basic training. There are fleeting moments however when director Chang is seemingly attempting to enter The Berlin File territory yet never quite manages to achieve it, and as such the action scenes are enjoyable while they last but don’t linger in the memory.

Another pivotal reason why The Target is entertaining yet tough to fully engage with is due to the large number of protagonists and supporting characters, which ultimately distracts attention away from the central story of fugitive Yeo-hoon and doctor Tae-joon. As the film continually focuses on peripheral characters and narrative tangents the main story becomes subsumed, making Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon’s uneasy alliance, as well as their quest to solve the mystery and save pregnant Hee-joo, moderately compelling and more of a backdrop to the carnage. Actors Ryu Seung-ryong and Lee Jin-wook perform their roles capably despite relatively weak character arcs, as does Jo Yeo-jeong as the damsel-in-distress, however it is Jin-goo as Tourette syndrome sufferer Sung-hoon and Kim Seong-ryeong as detective Jeong that provide the most interesting performances. Ultimately, with so many characters on screen, The Target is an amusing viewing experience, but one with little depth.

Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon must form an uneasy alliance to save pregnant Hee-joo

Yeo-hoon and Tae-joon must form an uneasy alliance to save pregnant Hee-joo

Verdict:

The Target is a remake of French thriller Point Blank by director Chang, and while he has constructed an entertaining action-thriller it’s one that fades from memory relatively easily. With competent yet uninspired action sequences, and an abundance of quality actors that serve to distract from the central story with their respective narrative arcs, The Target is an enjoyable action romp yet when that misses the mark.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량) – ★★★☆☆

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

It would be remiss for any discussion of The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량) not to examine the colossal achievements the period film has made. Director Kim Han-min’s (김한민) film has broken seemingly every Korean cinematic record the country has – the fastest film to gain over 10 million viewers (12 days); the most viewers on an opening day (682,797); the biggest opening weekend ($25.94 million); and the first film to attract over 1 million viewers and 10 billion won in a single day, amongst other similar milestones (source: KoBiz). To call The Admiral: Roaring Currents a success is an understatement of the highest order.

Yet the accomplishments have not come without marked criticism. Of the 2,584 cinema screens in South Korea, The Admiral: Roaring Currents initially occupied over 1,500, during a time of school vacations and oppressive summer heat. Bolstered by a 3 billion won marketing strategy by the country’s largest distributor CJ Entertainment, which combines with the biggest cinema chain CGV to form the conglomerate CJ-CGV, debates concerning the monopolization of the industry by chaebols have again risen (sources: VarietyThe Hankyoreh).

With all the success and criticism aside, the question remains – does The Admiral: Roaring Currents live up to the hype? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a resounding no. While it’s a well-made historical yarn, the simplistic script, weak characterisation and insanely – and often comically – overt nationalism detract from the film, making it less of a war epic and more of an entertaining matinee.

Admiral Yi Sun-shin returns from incarceration and toture to fight the Japanese invaders

Admiral Yi Sun-shin returns from incarceration and toture to fight the Japanese invaders

The year is 1597. Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik (최민식), the most fearsome – and unbeaten – naval commander in the history of Joseon (Korea), who has been imprisoned and tortured by the very country he fought for, is finally acquitted and released. His task is not small. With only 12 ships at his command, Admiral Yi must fend off the impending invasion of  330 battleships belonging to the Japanese navy, led by pirate Kurujima (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and General Wakizaka (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅). Against all odds, Admiral Yi must not only engage his enemy but also overcome the fear gripping his men, to defend Joseon from colonization in the famous Battle of Myeong-ryang.

The great strength of The Admiral: Roaring Currents lies in director Kim Han-min’s vision and incredible ability in capturing adrenaline-fueled scenes of carnage. Director Kim has already proved his kinetic prowess on the fun action-adventure War of the Arrows, yet with the larger budget and scale of The Admiral he surpasses himself to display a genuine evolution in style. Given that the Battle of Myeong-ryang itself takes roughly half of the film’s running time this is a particularly impressive feat, as director Kim uses every means at his disposal to make the conflict as thrilling, compelling, and downright entertaining as possible – and it works. Warfare is dramatically captured through a variety of techniques, from establishing shots conveying the scale of the battle and the horrifying size of the invasion, to smaller intimate scenes of bloody hand-to-hand combat and exciting quick changes in strategy. In one exhilarating long take the camera moves around the deck of Admiral Yi’s ship as he and his men clash violently with their foe. Plus, in a moment of inspired genius, The Admiral features Buddhist warrior monks cleaving Japanese forces in two, which never fails to raise a smile.

Japanese pirate-turned-general Kurujima leads the invasion...in thick make-up

Japanese pirate-turned-general Kurujima leads the invasion…in thick make-up

Unfortunately such sensibilities haven’t been extended to the script, which is generally really poor. The complexity of the period is constantly simplified and subsumed beneath incredibly overt nationalism, which is a real source of frustration. Whether it be the blinked-and-missed-it scenes of Admiral Yi’s torture at the hands of the country he defended, or the shambles of a navy that he inherits upon release, the lack of exploration of such issues really halts any audience investment in the historical figures/characters themselves. There is an attempt to add empathy by conveying Admiral Yi’s post-traumatic stress from torture as well as the relationship with his son, but again, they really are fleeting and add very little to the overall story. Instead, the film consistently strives to deify Admiral Yi, presenting him as an omnipotent saviour figure. This gives actor Choi Min-sik, who is undisputedly a phenomenal talent, very little material to work with, largely requiring him to look determined and to adopt the statuesque posture for which he is renowned.

The most obvious heavy-handed nationalism unsurprisingly appears in regards to the Japanese invaders. Visually, their costume design and make-up is frankly awful, which combines to convey them as one-dimensional drag acts sent from hell. This is acutely the case for Ryoo Seung-ryong as pirate-turned-general Kurujima, whose devil-esque costume and thick black eye-liner are laughable. The most comical moments however are reserved for the dialogue as Ryoo, on multiple occasions, is required to snarl and exclaim, “YI SUN-SHIN!” whenever the Admiral does well, inducing sniggers. The Japanese forces are undoubtedly the villains of this historical event, yet portraying them in such a simplified shallow manner undermines Admiral Yi’s achievements both in the past and on celluloid.

Admiral Yi prepares to engage in close combat

Admiral Yi engages in close combat

The Admiral: Roaring Currents is arguably the most financially successful Korean film of all time, shattering a multitude of box office records during its phenomenal cinematic run. Director Kim Han-min’s war-drama featuring revered Admiral Yi Sun-shin is nothing short of a filmic sensation. The film itself however, while a well-made historical actioner and displaying a genuine stylistic evolution by director Kim, suffers from a poor script, weak characterisation and over-zealous nationalism, combining to make The Admiral: Roaring Currents less of a war epic and more of an entertaining matinee.

★★★☆☆

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Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding 'The Man's' residence

26 Years (26년) – ★★★★☆

26 Years (26년)

26 Years (26년)

The production history of 26 Years (26년) is an incredible tale. Based on the popular web-comic by Kang Full (강풀), the film adaptation has languished in development for years as companies refused to finance the film due to the politically sensitive story – with some claiming the conservative government were the source of pressure. Frustrated, producer Choi Yong-bae went an alternative route to secure funding through crowd-sourcing, attracting donations from over 15,000 people which in turn garnered larger sums from celebrities such as musician Lee Seung-hwan and TV personality Kim Je-dong.

As with the 2012’s other controversial film National Security (남영동 1985)26 Years was timed to coincide with the presidential election and held particular relevance. The revenge story is based on the May 1980 Gwangju massacre, where Korean troops brutally suppressed the democratic protests killing up to 2000 people. The man responsible – dictator Chun Doo-hwan – was sentenced to death but later pardoned, currently living in seclusion at taxpayers expense. With prior dictator Park Chun-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, running for the 2012 presidency, 26 Years was a not-so-subtle attempt at reminding the public of her legacy. The result is an incredibly exciting thriller with a poignant emotional core, one that occasionally requires leaps in disbelief and sometimes stumbles in generating tension, but a film that nonetheless serves as a potent reminder of the raw, unresolved wound that for many continues to be a source of pain within the nation.

During the May 1980 Gwangju massacre, families were torn apart and forever scarred as loved ones were murdered before their eyes. 26 years later, the youths of the time have become adults and sought their way in life, yet the psychological scars that they carry from the time are still readily apparent. Kwak Jin-bae (Jin Goo (진구), who lost his father in the incident while his mother succumbed to psychological illness, has become a gangster at a nightclub. Sim Mi-jin (Han Hye-jin (한혜진) has become an Olympic marksman despite the death of her mother and father’s subsequent alcoholism. Police officer Kwon Jeong-hyeok (Seulong (임슬옹), whose sister was horrifically killed in front of him, is insulted further when tasked with helping the man responsible arrive home safely by changing traffic lights. When a former soldier who took part in the event called Kim Gap-se (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) gathers the three together, they formulate a plan to finally kill ‘The Man’ (Jang Gwang, 장광) once and for all.

The team is recruited by former soldier Kim Gap-se and second-in-command Kim Joo-an

The team is recruited by former soldier Kim Gap-se and second-in-command Kim Joo-an

Director Jo Geun-hyeon (조근현) does an incredible job of conveying the pain and suffering endured by the events of the Gwangju massacre. In a truly stunning animated sequence the history of the tragedy is presented, as well as the specific horrors that the individuals – who later form the revenge squad – experience. While such an approach could easily be melodramatic and even insulting to the victims of the conflict, director Jo deftly sidesteps such concerns by conveying the stark, unadulterated terror that was inflicted upon the people. Blood, psychological breakdowns, rotting corpses and disembowelment all feature in frightening detail, not only exploring the abject brutality of the atrocity but also providing powerful impetus for the those effected.

The psychological scars brought about by the event are not ignored, and screenwriter Lee Hae-young deserves credit for their inclusion and elevating the narrative beyond a standard revenge thriller. Each protagonist has their own distinct neuroses, from Jin-bae’s outbursts of violence to Mi-jin’s cold and unemotional demeanor, and each serves a valuable purpose in the mission. Writer Lee also manages to include some wonderful moments, such as the oft-stated argument that dictator Chun was good for the country due to economic policies and the Olympic Games, a debate that is quietened simply through Jin-bae’s glare. In another, a police officer likens helping Chun arrive home safely to feeling ‘like being raped.’ These minor asides help to form a sense of Korean unity against corruption, and lend further legitimacy to the resentment against Chun and the assassination attempt.

Chun, however, is never mentioned directly and is simply referred to as ‘The Man’ throughout the film, although it’s quite clear who is the villain. As the former dictator, actor Jang Gwang gives a highly effective performance conveying the stubborn, unremorseful antagonist with skill despite appearing in relatively few scenes. Jang seems to be adept in playing nefarious roles, as exhibited as a true-life child molester in Silenced (도가니)and his performance in 26 Years is certainly one of the highlights of his career to date.

Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding 'The Man's' residence

Jin-bae attempts to penetrate the security surrounding ‘The Man’s’ residence

The rest of the cast also fare well, however due to the quite ambitious task of including so many individuals and narrative facets their character development, as well as that of their mission, is somewhat stunted. Of them all, Jin Goo as violent gangster Jin-bae receives the most amount of screen-time as he gradually changes from thug to team leader. Jin Goo brings an intensity to the role and conveys the required physicality well, quickly becoming the central hero of the film and his presence is always engaging and entertaining. His relationship with Olympic sharpshooter Mi-jin however is quite convoluted and unnecessary, particularly as there are precious few moments that explore the team dynamics or the relationships between each member prior to the forced romance. Han Hye-jin has stated that she wanted to role of Mi-jin as she wanted an acting role (rather than simply one for her appearance) although she never really attempts to go beyond cold stoicism. Police officer Jeong-hyeok, played by Seulong, suffers the most in terms of focus and is often a whiny irritation. This is a shame considering his backstory is one of the most poignant, yet his motivations are never really explored. Lee Kyeong-yeong, who also starred in the aforementioned National Security, provides a unique perspective as a soldier forced to take part in the Gwangju massacre and performs well with the material he is provided, but again the great many facets within the narrative don’t allow further room to explore his guilt.

Despite the fairly brief character development once the team forms, their combined efforts during the assassination attempts are thrilling and adrenaline-inducing. Even though it is fictional, it is genuinely exciting, even cathartic, to see the man responsible for the Gwangju massacre in the crosshairs of a victim he created and as such brings a fresh perspective on the old debate between revenge and justice. The lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are continually blurred as a result, with the police and security officers set up as opposition but are themselves conflicted by their roles. While the attempts to kill ‘The Man’ occasionally require the odd leap of disbelief and are overly long, the audience investment generated throughout makes the action and tension incredibly engaging.

Mi-jin takes aim, ready to serve justice on the unrepentant dictator

Mi-jin takes aim, ready to serve justice on the unrepentant dictator

Verdict:

With an fraught production history finally culminating in crowd-sourcing, 26 Years is a great cinematic adaptation of Kang Full’s webcomic. With its politically sensitive story involving the 1980 Gwangju massacre and the subsequent pardoning of the dictator responsible, the film strikes an emotional chord despite the fictional revenge tale. Director Jo Geun-hyeon and writer Lee Hae-young have produced a highly engaging thriller and is a poignant reminder of the legacy of Chun Doo-hwan’s regime.

★★★★☆

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Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Moby Dick (모비딕) – ★★★☆☆

Moby Dick (모비딕)

Moby Dick (모비딕)

Conspiracy theory films, and the inherent shadowy figures that operate within and/or behind the government, are a fun and exhilarating sub-genre that express audience distrust of institutions as well as emphasizing their impotency. They also have an uncanny knack for tapping into social anxieties. With the Bourne series (2002-2007) the post-9/11 ‘Patriot Act’ was vehemently scrutinized, as the shadow operatives abused the use of satellites and phones in targeting alleged terrorists. Similarly Enemy of the State (1998) portrayed senior members of the NSA murdering senators and civilians alike to expand their power base and withhold information.

Moby Dick (모비딕) is concerned with the conspiracy theories that plague the South Korean government, a premise with huge potential due to the often tumultuous relationship with the North. However, due to the bland and uneven narrative and direction, central protagonists that lack charisma or intelligence, and most importantly the distinct lack of threat posed by the shadow organisation, Moby Dick largely fails.

Lee Bang-woo  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is a newspaper reporter constantly waiting for the next big scoop in order to become renowned. When a bridge explodes and the government quickly blames the incident on North Korean spies, Bang-woo decides to visit the scene and bribes his informant for extra details. Shortly thereafter Bang-woo is visited by his young friend Yoon Hyeok (Jin Goo (진구), on the run for desertion, carrying a bag full of official documents and disks. Examining the paraphernalia Bang-woo realises there’s much more to the explosion, and other mysterious events, then previously thought and puts together a team of reporters – polite rival Son Jin-gi  (Kim Sang-ho (김상호) and code cracker Seong Hyo-gwan  (Kim Min-hee (김민희) – to uncover the secrets of the shadow government organisation whose symbol is ‘Moby Dick’.

Bang-woo begins to understand that other forces are at work

Bang-woo begins to understand that other forces are at work

Moby Dick is directed by Park In-je (박인제) competently, and the potential of the notion of a shadow government has incredible potential for a thrilling, gritty tale of political espionage. However the  narrative is often in complete disarray and lacking in focus that any sense of compulsion, and worse still immediacy, are completely lost. The opening shot of Moby Dick is the televisual image displayed from a CCTV camera as a bridge explodes; this in itself forces audience detachment from the severity of the cataclysmic event as the impact and ramifications are unseen, and considering it is the catalyst for the entire film is a rather odd form of representation. What follows is a supremely dull first act as protagonists are introduced sporadically and lacking in motivation. Bang-woo is a woefully underdeveloped protagonist who routinely displays naivety and idiocy, and aside from curiosity and selfish desire has little motivation for investigating either the explosion or the conspiracy. He is utterly inept at investigation and continually places himself and his colleagues in danger needlessly, yet his impotency is dwarfed by the unbelievable inefficiency of the covert group signified by the white whale. The syndicate are effectively reduced to hired thugs rather than efficient spies, who even display street signs highlighting that they are in residence – in crowded public areas no-less. Supervising the group is a mysterious man in a suit who, bizarrely, sits at a desk in an empty room the size of an entire floor in a building. Such a cliche again adds nothing to the threat apparently posed by the covert operatives who consistently appear unsure of their next move, from the illogical indecision to not ‘eliminate’ the reporters to seemingly random discussions regarding exploding planes and nuclear armament.

Rival Jin-gi joins the team using his own informants

Rival Jin-gi joins the team using his own informants

In terms of character Moby Dick has a highly skilled assortment of actors that are unfortunately never given adequate screen-time or dramatic scenes in which to display their skill. Hwang Jeong-min is noteworthy in this respect as he has little opportunity to perform his talents, as Bang-woo is a shockingly ignorant protagonist who is also very rude and unlikeable. Quite how he isn’t killed by the organisation immediately after emerging as a threat requires genuine suspension of disbelief, although the incompetency of the covert operatives helps in this regard. Instead the violence seems reserved purely for Kim Sang-ho as Son Jin-gi who is beaten and tortured, which appears to be his only function in the narrative. Furthermore Kim Min-hee is incredibly underutilized as Hyo-gwan, conveniently appearing when the screenwriters are in need of someone or something to propel the stalled narrative forward. The same criticism also applies to Jin Goo as Yoon Hyeok who could have functioned as a Jason Bourne figure, yet after his initial purpose of providing classified documents he strangely fades into the background. All the actors do the best they can in such limiting roles, yet the absence of character development and the lack of cohesion between them is detrimental to them all.

Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Bang-woo and Hyo-gwan attempts to crack the codes

Verdict:

Moby Dick is a squandered opportunity, with talented actors and a fantastic premise that are let down through a narrative that lacks direction and focus. While it is generally competently directed, there is unfortunately no escaping the narrative inconsistencies, absence of character development, or lack of threat posed by the shadow operatives, all of which require a real leap in the suspension of disbelief in order for Moby Dick to remain plausible – or, for that matter, enjoyable.

★★★☆☆

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