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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As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

New World (신세계) – ★★★★☆

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Coppola’s 1972 classic The Godfather has long been a source of inspiration for audiences and filmmakers alike. The themes of family, power and corruption, alongside seminal performances from cinematic icons, make it one of the premiere examples of the gangster genre and a masterpiece in its own right. Director Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정) is clearly a huge admirer – he claims to have watched The Godfather over a hundred times – for he explores such topics, in conjunction with his own unique vision developed as screenwriter of The Unjust and I Saw The Devilwithin exemplary gangster film New World (신세계).

Exploring the dynamics of power within a criminal cartel turned conglomerate (or chaebol, as they are known in Korea), the story weaves a twisted and highly engaging web of suspense-filled intrigue. Ironically however, the focus on such power struggles makes the narrative a somewhat impersonal affair. Yet the film features excellent performances by an A-list cast alongside some truly gorgeous cinematography, combining to make New World a powerful and captivating addition to the genre.

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

When the head of the Goldmoon corporation is killed in highly suspicious circumstances, a power vacuum is left in his wake. Yet the company is not a typical chaebol. It is an amalgamation of several different criminal organisations, brought together to expand their illegal operations under the guise of an enterprise. Among the candidates to become the next ‘kingpin’ of the cartel are stoic Lee Ja-seong (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and close friend Jeong Cheong (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), as well as the aggressive Lee Joong-goo (Park Seong-woong (박성웅). Yet unknown to everyone within the organisation is Ja-seong’s dual role as a police officer, repeatedly putting his life on the line to report to Section Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). As people on both sides of the law wage war for power, choices must be made and bloody confrontations forced in order to sit at the head of Goldmoon.

As with prior film The Unjust, director Park once again proves himself a master of balancing multiple characters. Each member of Goldmoon and the police force has an agenda, and director Park does incredibly well in portraying how each of them attempts to achieve their goals. The character development is consistently believable and occurs as a result of the desire for power, making the story an enthralling experience. This is also in no small way due to the performances of the A-list cast. Choi Min-shik in particular is outstanding as Chief Kang, a veteran cop who realises the monster he has become yet cannot quit. The actor conveys a brilliant complexity within the role, authoritative and intelligent yet self-loathing and frustrated. As Chinese descendant Jeong Cheong, Hwang Jeong-min is also superb. Amazingly he turns an extremely deplorable gangster into a likable jerk, with his foul-mouth and extravagance with fake goods masking a dangerously violent criminal. Ironically Lee Jeong-jae is somewhat short-changed as lead character Ja-seong. His role is the most complex as Ja-seong must play both sides of the law and stay alive, yet there are only a handful of moments where the character develops and genuinely feels threatened. Nevertheless, Lee Jeong-jae is very competent in the role.

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Furthermore, rarely has a gangster film been so attractive. Director Park immediately places the audience within the violent, dark underbelly inhabited by the protagonists utilising great vision and skill. The composition, lighting and cinematography combine to produce some truly gorgeous aesthetics, conveying the Goldmoon hierarchy, the brutal violence, and stunning landscapes with minimal dialogue. The beauty of the dockyards at dawn is wonderfully contrasted with characters forced to swallow cement, and wonderfully captures the bizarre duality inherent in Ja-seong’s life. Such powerful and compelling imagery continue throughout the entire film, from the cold metallic offices in Goldmoon to the shadowy secret liaisons and deals that take place. New World is a genuine visual triumph, and the passion and attention to detail within every shot is palpable.

While director Park does a great job balancing and positioning the protagonists within the film to culminate in a powerful conclusion, the film also suffers from being overly ambitious. As enthralling as the story is, there are simply far too many characters within the narrative and too little time to fully construct them. Song Ji-hyo exemplifies this issue, as the talented actress is given precious few scenes in which to establish her role as a crucial player. However it is again Lee Jeong-jae who suffers the most in this regard, as his personal life – including an interesting sub-plot regarding his pregnant wife – is glossed over in favour of focusing on his status as a mole. The narrative is so concerned with the Goldmoon power play that, crucially, there is little reason provided to care about Ja-seong’s predicament on an emotional level.

Despite such criticism, New World is an incredibly powerful and exemplary gangster film. The exploration of power and corruption within the Goldmoon chaebol as well as the police force is continually fascinating,  even more so when taking into account such issues are a genuine social concern within contemporary Korea. Director Park has crafted an enthralling gangster epic, and fans of the genre will undoubtedly love it.

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

Verdict:

New World is a powerful and exemplary gangster film, examining the power play that occurs when the head of a criminal corporation is killed. Director Park Hoon-jeong expertly weaves a tangled web of gangsters and police into a compelling and thrilling story of corruption and betrayal. The film is also bolstered by fantastic performances from A-list stars including Choi Min-shik, Hwang Jeong-min and Lee Jeong-jae, who are continually fascinating to watch. While the focus on positioning characters and the shady deals that are made make the film a somewhat impersonal affair, New World is enthralling gangster epic that fans of the genre will not want to miss.

★★★★☆

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