The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계) – ★★★☆☆

The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계)

The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계)

Kang In-gu (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is far from the average gangster. While he joins his compatriots in the Dog Gang as they partake in criminal activities and expand their territory, In-gu also wants the joy of having a typical family. Yet his long-suffering wife (Park Ji-young (박지영) and daughter (Kim So-eun (김소은) are deeply ashamed of his occupation, with In-gu’s efforts to impress them and earn their respect constantly failing. Thankfully, due to a great deal secured by In-gu, he can finally quit the gangster lifestyle and focus on creating the perfect home in the suburbs. Yet when the ambitious younger brother (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문) of the big boss (Choi Il-hwa (최일화) makes a play for power, In-gu’s dreams quickly begin to unravel.

In-gu's attempts to have a career as a gangster as well as a family strain his relationships

In-gu’s attempts to have a career as a gangster as well as a family strain his relationships

The Show Must Go On is a unique gangster tale in that director Han Jae-rim does away with the overt machismo and glamourisation of the underworld lifestyle, presenting a more grounded and comedic interpretation of the genre. Crime comedies have become somewhat of a staple in Korean cinema with the Marrying the Mafia and My Wife is a Gangster series, but what sets The Show Must Go On apart from its peers is that overt humour is jettisoned in favour of irony and satire. The original Korean title translates as ‘Elegant World‘ yet In-gu’s life is revealed as anything but, as he works hard in absurd situations in order to provide for his family but succeeds only in upsetting them further. When his daughter’s grades slip, for example, In-gu attempts to bribe the concerned teacher with vouchers incurring greater animosity from the family. In his role as senior gangster, In-gu is forced to wrestle with a short middle-aged man and bite his fingers in order to acquire prints for a contract. It is through such ironic moments that director Han pokes fun at both the lifestyle and the genre, resulting in a film with a distinct identity.

That said, the humour within the crime-comedy-drama misses more often than it hits. While director Han competently helms the action and creates certain confrontations that raise a smile, others mostly just fall flat and give way to violent conflict, dramatic scenes, or a combination of the two. As such the tone within The Show Must Go On veers uncontrollably throughout the narrative and is incredibly uneven from beginning to end. Certain set-pieces – such as a battle royale between gangsters and striking construction workers, presented as comedic through the overtly feminine fighting styles of the supposedly tough criminals – make light of keen social problems which tends to seem in bad taste. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-soo is employed to help bring a greater element of fun as In-gu’s best friend from a rival gang, however his paltry screen-time unfortunately allows him little room to maneuver.

In-gu and best friend Hyun-soo joke around in one of the film's lighter moments

In-gu and best friend Hyun-soo joke around in one of the film’s lighter moments

The uneven tonal balance extends to The Show Must Go On’s weak final act, where the film disappointingly falls into repetition and melodrama. At 112 minutes the film doesn’t have a particularly long running time yet due to the imbalances and protracted finale, tedium sets in ultimately resulting in a film which feels overly long.

What makes The Show Must Go On watchable and entertaining is the highly charismatic performance of Song Kang-ho, who carries the entire film on his talented shoulders. The star has made a career out of playing incredibly likable, bumbling, well-intentioned fools and he channels such prowess brilliantly into the character of In-gu. Song also manages to construct the protagonist as so appealing that a great deal of sympathy is almost demanded from the audience, despite In-gu’s status in the criminal underworld. The actor conveys the gangster first and foremost as a sensitive husband and father, desperate to do right by them yet as he is his own worst enemy, he simply creates further embarrassment and tension. In removing the overt machismo and swagger so often associated with the genre and constructing In-gu as a character with more diversity and depth, Song has taken a highly uneven script and made it an engaging drama.

In-gu is violent when necessary but first and foremost is a family man

In-gu is violent when necessary but first and foremost is a family man

Verdict:

The Show Must Go On is a unique offering by director Han Jae-rim, who seeks to construct a gangster comedy with ironic and satirical sensibilities. The result is very hit-and-miss with a tone that is generally all over the place, despite the competent directing on display. The film is saved however by Song Kang-ho’s wonderful performance as a sensitive father/criminal, and fans of the actor will no doubt find much to enjoy.

★★★☆☆

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Yeong-gyoo and his team prepare for trafficking organs

The Traffickers (공모자들) – ★★★☆☆

The Traffickers (공모자들)

The Traffickers (공모자들)

Exploring the black market organ trade between Korea and China, The Traffickers (공모자들) is the directorial debut from writer/director Kim Hong-seon (김홍선). The film, which is loosely based on the true story of Korean newlyweds who became embroiled in human organ trafficking, also earned director Kim the ‘Best New Director’ award at the 2012 Blue Dragon Film Awards.

The Traffickers is indeed a thrilling film, one that captures the horrifying reality of the trade and depths organ traffickers will go to in order to secure their product. The tension generated from such scenes is palpable, whilst the horror of those effected by trafficking is gut-wrenchingly poignant. Yet bizarrely, director Kim attempts to align the audience with the traffickers themselves, forcing them to care whether the mission is a success despite the criminals’ sinister machinations. The result is a thrilling yet odd story, and one that deserves credit for examining the very nature of such controversial subject matter.

Following a failed attempt at securing organs that cost the life of his best friend, trafficker Yeong-gyoo (Im Chang-jeong (임창정) and his team quit the business and become simple smugglers instead. Yet the meager sums generated from smuggling make it difficult to rise out of squalor and pay debts, and the team are in need of a big score. Simultaneously, Yu-ri (Jo Yoon-hee (조윤희), the woman of Yeong-gyoo’s affections, has a sick father in need of a transplant and visits black market dealers to secure an organ. For her sake, and for the team, Yeong-gyoo secretly agrees to perform one last job with the help of righthand man Joon-sik (Jo Dal-hwan (조달환) and alcoholic surgeon Kyeong-jae (Oh Dal-su (오달수). As everyone gathers on the boat to China, businessman Sang-ho (Choi Daniel (최 다니엘) and his disabled wife Chae-hee (Jeong Ji-yoon (정지윤) board the same vessel only to find themselves the targets of the traffickers.

Yeong-gyoo and his team prepare for trafficking organs

Yeong-gyoo and his team prepare for trafficking organs

The opening sequence of The Traffickers is the stuff of nightmares as a man, naked and wounded, stumbles through the hallways of a boat smearing his blood on the walls. Writer/director Kim Hong-seon captures the horror of the situation with skill and conveys a disturbingly compelling introduction into the world of the traffickers. Indeed, the director displays a keen eye for tension and violence throughout the film and is a seemingly perfect fit for the genre, building suspense-filled sequences until a release of blood soaked terror. The scenes in which Yeong-gyoo’s team abduct disabled Chae-hee and prepare to harvest her organs are horrifying yet engrossing, whilst the tension generated by her husbands frantic search of the claustrophobic and labyrinthian hallways of the boat is genuinely disconcerting. Similarly, the abuse Chae-hee suffers contains chilling realism as the traffickers take advantage of her predicament by abusing and cutting her, all voyeuristically captured on camera for their clients.

It is therefore quite odd that Yeong-gyoo and the traffickers are given such central, vital roles within the narrative. Korean cinema is no stranger to the concept of the anti-hero, with films such as The Chaser and The Thieves performing incredibly well, but The Traffickers really takes the notion to the next level. Criminals executing a high-stakes heist is one thing, but human organ traffickers that sexually abuse a drugged disabled woman is quite another. The perversity and violence that pervades whenever the traffickers are around is quite shocking, yet more is so that the audience are intended to root for them to succeed. In fact, all of the criminals have zero redeeming features with which to forge empathy, something director Kim seems to realise in the final act as a hasty back story is given to Yeong-gyoo through flashback scenes. This is particularly problematic as while the team appear to be winning, it just feels wrong.

After abducting disabled Chae-hee, the team get to work

After abducting disabled Chae-hee, the team get to work

With the exception of leader Yeong-gyoo, the characters themselves are generally stereotypes including the effeminate sleazy boss, the mentally challenged trafficker, and the drunken surgeon. Despite this the dialogue is well written and competently acted by all involved, and the world in which they inhabit and the stakes they face are conveyed with the appropriate danger. As the most developed protagonist, Yeong-gyoo is actually quite a complex, and disturbed, figure within the film. Wonderfully acted by Im Chang-jeong, Yeong-gyoo is a particularly nasty piece of work due to his penchant for violence and swearing, as well as the abuse he delivers to the middle aged women who smuggle goods for him. As he is quite unlikeable, director Kim attempts to provide Yeong-gyoo with a ray of hope in the form of love interest Yu-ri, but as she wants absolutely nothing to do with him, he appears to be something of a stalker. Yeong-gyoo’s motivations are therefore unclear. Does he intend to give money to Yu-ri for her father’s operation? Does he intend to give Chae-hee’s organs to Yu-ri? He is incredibly mysterious, but the fact that Yu-ri doesn’t even like him gives rise to the question why he bothers at all.

Director Kim appears to be aware of these issues however, and attempts to address them all for the finale. It’s too little too late of course, but by giving Yeong-gyoo a moral impetus and back story he finally becomes a figure audiences can root for, and hope to succeed. The action and suspense during the final act is frantic and exhilarating as the chase sequences and fighting scenes are tense and brutal as cars are smashed and eyes gouged. The Chinese hospital in particular stands out as a source of abject horror, as the camera moves past rooms filled with organ-less corpses. While the race against time is highly enjoyable, it is ultimately undermined by the silly coincidences and plot absurdities that transpire to transform Yeong-gyoo into the hero, which is a shame considering the action is so engaging.

Yeong-goo must race against time to salvage the operation

Yeong-gyoo must race against time to salvage the operation

Verdict:

The Traffickers is a thrilling and violent film about the black market organ trade that exists between Korea and China. Director Kim Hong-seon captures the tension and action with skill in his debut feature, and the abject horror that arises throughout the film is palpable. Yet the film is hugely problematic as the central protagonists are the exploitative, perverse traffickers who sport zero redeeming features, but the audience are expected to will them to succeed. Combined with some quite absurd narrative occurrences in the final act, The Traffickers is an engaging albeit paradoxical thriller.

★★★☆☆

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