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

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다) – ★★★★☆

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

When internal affairs unexpectedly show up at the precinct and begin to investigate, corrupt detective Go Geun-soo (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균) is forced to make excuses at his late mother’s funeral and race back to prevent his guilt from being unearthed. Driving fast and stressed from his predicament, Go accidently hits and kills a passerby. Secretly disposing of the body and cunningly destroying evidence of his involvement, Go believes he’s in the clear…until he receives an anonymous phone call from a witness (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅) threatening to reveal his sordid crime. Unless Go complies with the demands his world will be over, beginning a frantic game of suspense as they battle to emerge victorious and unscathed.

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

From the moment it begins, A Hard Day is an exciting, captivating, and down right thrilling cinematic joyride. Writer/director Kim Seong-hoon (김성훈) has crafted an enthralling and suspense fuelled tale that constantly keeps the audience guessing, through the incorporation of a variety of inspired set-pieces that takes staples of the genre yet reinvents them enough to keep them fresh and appealing. Whether it be the initial hit-and-run incident, the disposal of the body, car chases or physical combat, director Kim builds tension brilliantly to consistently excite and entertain. Alongside editor Kim Chang-ju, who sutures the scenes to incredible effect, the duo have combined to create some of the most gratifying and well made action-thriller sequences in recent memory. Yet despite all the conflict and terrifying situations that arise, the film is never morbid due to the dark ironic humour laced throughout that adds genuine laugh-out-loud moments to the proceedings, a real rarity that serves to both inspire and rejuvenate a genre that has, of late, become quite stagnant. As such the 2 hour and 30 minute running time simply flies by, making A Hard Day one of the most entertaining filmic experiences of the year, and well deserving of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Central to the enjoyment of A Hard Day are the wonderfully charismatic performances of Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong. Lee is great as corrupt detective Go, effectively conveying the anti-hero as selfish and unethical but also quite likable and ultimately sympathetic given the fraught circumstances that arise. Lee has an ‘everyman’ quality that he employs effortlessly throughout the film that generates an acute connection with the audience, so much so that it’s entirely possible to forgive Go for his dishonesty and actually root for him as the underdog victim. Jo, meanwhile, appears to absolutely relish the opportunity portraying the villainous blackmailer, to the point where despite his supporting actor status, he threatens to steal the film every time he appears on screen. He is a hulking pillar of evil, yet his comic timing and delivery are so comically entertaining that he’s impossible to dislike, adding a wonderfully fresh dimension to the relationship between the antagonists that is consistently fascinating to watch unfold.

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

Verdict:

A Hard Day is one of the most exciting and entertaining action-thrillers of the year. Director Kim Seong-hoon has crafted a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful and darkly humourous tale of corruption that consistently feels fresh through the reinvention of genre traits. Featuring highly charismatic performances from leads Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong, A Hard Day is a thrilling cinematic joyride from start to finish.

★★★★☆

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

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) 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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