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

The Berlin File (베를린) – ★★★★☆

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

★★★★☆

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Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이) – ★★★☆☆

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

It goes without saying that the films of Quentin Tarantino have left an indelible impression on the cinematic landscape. This is especially the case with Pulp Fiction, whereby the amalgamation of extreme violence, pop culture, and variety of narrative threads have invited a host of admirers and homages. Director Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완) fits both areas, consistently expressing similar themes throughout his body of work albeit with his own Korean flair. Indeed, his nickname as ‘the Korean Tarantino’ is not entirely undeserved.

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이), director Ryoo Seung-wan’s second feature, has clearly taken gangster films such as Pulp Fiction and Snatch as huge sources of inspiration, featuring a multi-strand narrative with an assortment of colorful low lives and gangsters seeking the perfect score. Being a Korean production, there is also a great deal of Confucian ideals and martial arts added to the mix for good measure. It’s a largely enjoyable ensemble piece featuring some wonderful character actors, yet the disparate narratives never coalesce convincingly, in addition to the vast number of protagonists, tonal imbalances, and blatant misogyny that permeates throughout the story.

Gyung-sun (Lee Hye-yeong, 이혜영), a down-on-her-luck taxi driver, is continually harassed by loan sharks seeking debt collection and the police for her criminal past. While attempting to forge a life for herself despite awful passengers, her taxi is hit by Su-jin (Jeon Do-yeon, 전도연) who is on the run from her violent boyfriend Dok-bul (Jeong Jae-yeong, 정재영). A former boxing champion, Dok-bul works for the aging local kingpin KGB, or Kim Geun-bok (Sin Goo, 신구) whose power base is unchallengeable particularly while flanked by martial arts master the Silent Man (Jeong Doo-hong, 정두홍). Unknown to KGB however, is that everyone around him is conspiring to steal his fortune, even local karaoke worker Chae Min-su (Ryoo Seung-beom, 류승범).

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

One of the great strengths of No Blood No Tears is the gritty, violence-fueled world of Incheon inhabited by the array of gangsters and charlatans. The aesthetics employed by director Ryoo Seung-wan, such as the wonderful use of low key lighting, convey an urban landscape fraught with danger and violence, while the dilapidated arenas in which confrontations occur lends a disturbing sense of realism to the proceedings. Within this world are a vast number of protagonists, each with their own foibles and agendas, all connected with one another through various relationships and each strand unfolds in a thoroughly entertaining manner. As such comparisons with Pulp Fiction are inevitable, particularly as director Ryoo Seung-wan uses similar non-linear editing techniques in which to orchestrate events, although he later succumbs to traditional linear storytelling. Unfortunately however, with so many characters the director doesn’t manage to balance the vast number of plot threads and therefore underdevelopment of key personnel is a profound issue throughout the film. This is acutely the case with indebted taxi driver Gyeong-sun and wannabe pop starlet Su-jin, who are the masterminds behind the heist but are forced to the sidelines while focus is granted to the male roles. The intention is clearly a Thelma and Louise style narrative whereby two unlikely women join forces to take on a male-dominated world, yet as well as lack of development the film contains some frankly awful misogyny as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin are repeatedly beaten to an absurd degree by the men around them.

Stylised violence is one of director Ryoo Seung-wan’s greatest assets, and when not used to abuse the female characters, it is a genuine delight. Of particular note is the confrontation between retired boxer Dok-bul and the Silent Man, which features some lightning fast and bone crunching moves made all the more powerful through utilizing the gritty realism of Incheon’s underworld. The blood, sweat, and deft use of light and shadow are exhilarating to behold as the men fight for their lives – and their stake of the money – within the battleground of a dog fighting cage, and is a testament to the director’s skill and flair for action sequences.

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

The violence is also accompanied by a healthy dose of black comedy through humorous use of bad language and bizarre confrontations between the eccentric characters. While not as sophisticated as the films which inspired it, the comedy within No Blood No Tears is still highly enjoyable. A large amount of humor is left to the director’s brother, Ryoo Seung-beom, as dim-witted karaoke worker Chae Min-su. Unfortunately this tends to be slapstick in nature, although there are laugh-out-loud moments to be had. Most of the comedy appears through the double-crosses and surprise encounters as everyone attempts to outsmart each other and disappear with the money, and the quick pace as events unfold is entertaining. It is, however, difficult to be fully invested in the antics as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin tend to have little involvement in the robbery despite their central roles in the film, while villainous thug Dok-bul seems to emerge as an anti-hero of sorts, only for things to later reverse in an attempt to wrap all the narrative threads up nicely. As such, while certainly enjoyable, the finale is lacking in compulsion making the film somewhat hollow and bittersweet as the credits begin to role.

Gyeong-sun and Su-ji attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Verdict:

No Blood No Tears is a gritty, urban tale of gangsters and charlatans in a Korea-meets-Pulp Fiction style. Director Ryoo Seung-wan has crafted a world of danger and violence with expert use of lighting and environments, while his trademark of stylized action is exhilarating to behold. Yet the unbalanced narrative and lack of character development due to the enormous cast results in a lack of investment, particularly with the central female roles, who suffer from awful misogynistic abuse throughout the film. No Blood No Tears is ultimately an enjoyable, though uneven, gangster romp.

★★★☆☆

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Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja's charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

The Servant (방자전) – ★★★★☆

The Servant (방자전)

The Servant (방자전)

The ‘erotic period drama’ has almost become a sub-genre unto itself. In recent years narratives have become increasingly more concerned with the sexual scandals of the ruling elite of eras gone by, and the impact such affairs have on the governance on the region. Rather than the sexless morality consistently promoted by the aristocracy, records clearly indicate a swathe of sexual liaisons which contemporary filmmakers seem determined to commit to celluloid.

The Servant, written and directed by Kim Dae-woo, certainly fits well into the category and while sexual sequences are initially misogynistic they are highly erotically charged, adding passionate depth to the central couple. Yet it is the incredible performance by Jo Yeo-jeong as dutiful albeit entrapped feminist Choon-hyang that makes The Servant such a compelling period drama, providing a poignant humanistic grounding set against a background of betrayal and corruption during the Joseon era.

During the Joseon Dynasty, a renowned crime lord (Kim Joo-hyeok (김주혁) recounts his path into the underworld to a scribe, with the intent to publish the autobiographical story and reveal the truth behind his descent into crime. Surprisingly the gangster’s tale begins as a humble servant, or Bang-ja (방자), in service of ambitious aristocrat Lee Mong-ryong (Ryu Seung-beom (류승범). Upon hearing of the beauty of a local woman named Choon-hyang (Jo Yeo-jeong), the daughter of a ‘gisaeng house’ owner, Mong-ryong visits to see for himself. Choon-hyang’s beauty has not been exaggerated, and Mong-ryong insists on meeting her in private in an attempt to woo her. Yet Bang-ja is also captivated by Choon-hyang, and so begins a rivalry between the master and servant for her affections. Tutored in the art of seduction by infamous Lothario Mr. Ma (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), Bang-ja successfully wins Choon-hyang’s heart yet in doing so unleashes a wave of ramifications that leaves all of them irrevocably changed.

The crime lord recounts his history as a servant (Bang-ja) to a scribe

The crime lord recounts his history as a servant (Bang-ja) to a scribe

The Servant is a re-imagining of the classic ‘Choon-hyang’s Tale’, told from the perspective of the titular servant Bang-ja, and as such is a much more male-centered narrative. This is both a blessing and a curse as while the shift detracts from the feminist perspective, Choon-hyang’s strength and passion are idolized through Bang-ja allowing for more poignant, romantic storytelling. Writer/director Kim Dae-woo’s interpretation also expresses a highly interesting variation on the tale as he has chosen to forgo the themes of chastity in favor of scandalous sexual liaisons, yet still foregrounds the issues of social status, tyrannical government officials, and women’s rights to produce a refreshing and socially aware take on the subject.

Kim Dae-woo’s screenplay – as well as his directorial style – does a wonderful job in exploring such concepts with a sexual twist, as the motivation behind all conversations and undertakings involves discussions of sex and sexual power. The relationship between Bang-ja and Choon-hyang wonderfully explores such dynamics as despite the romantic gestures, passionate physicality and development of love, their relationship can never be accepted due to social status adding genuinely moving melodramatic fatalism to the proceedings. Juxtaposed with their situation are the laughable attempts to woo Choon-hyang by aristocrat Mong-ryong, which serve as comical highlights as well as a source of frustration as despite his awkward masculinity Mong-ryong is by far the better suitor. Choon-hyang, and most notably her body, is continually used as a bargaining chip by those around her as she precariously walks the fine line between dutiful daughter/love interest and independent woman. Actress Jo Yeo-jeong is absolutely enthralling in the role as she conveys the unapologetic resolve to her family with strength and dignity yet still emphasizes her own desire to escape the rigid social hierarchy with passion and verve. Such is Jo Yeo-jeong’s skill and prowess that it’s difficult to imagine any other actress in the role, as she embodies the plight of Choon-hyang wholly and with sincerity.

While Jo Yeo-jeong’s performance is pivotal in making The Servant such an enthralling film, unfortunately a large part of the advertising campaign – and indeed, word of mouth – focused more prominently on her sexual scenes. The sequences themselves are highly erotic, arguably the most erotic within mainstream Korean cinema, as Jo Yeo-jeong’s incredibly glamorous figure is fully on display as she and co-star Kim Joo-hyeok commit themselves fully in conveying the utmost passion. Such scenes are, at least initially, highly problematic however as the first liaison is highly misogynistic and certainly falls into the category of sexual assault – perhaps even rape – a stark contrast with Kim Dae-woo’s prior sexual sequence in Untold Scandal. Yet despite this the resulting sexual sequences are not employed merely for titillation, as they convey the unbreakable passion and love between the central protagonists and infuse the relationship with romance and enchantment.

Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja's charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

Choon-hyang falls for Bang-ja’s charms, leading to erotically charged sequences

Yet despite the fascinating exploration of the role of sexual power, The Servant falters during the final act. In his bid to offer a fresh take on the classic tale and offer a narrative twist to surprise audiences familiar with the story, Kim Dae-woo’s finale feels forced and contrived as he attempts to resolve all the narrative strands. While his technique allows the protagonists to come full circle, the tone is markedly different from prior events and frustratingly reduces the status of heroine Choon-hyang. That said, the impact of such melodramatic scenes linger long after the credits.

In terms of performance, Jo Yeo-jeong largely makes the entire film her own due to her tremendous prowess and charisma, although she is ably supported by her co-stars.

As the titular servant, Kim Joo-hyeok is highly effective as a man fully aware of his dire social status yet cannot control his impulses. He conveys his unique brand of dualism very well as he gallantly strives to help Choon-hyang or simply to be noticed, yet scant seconds later is begging for forgiveness for overstepping his social boundaries. Special mention must also be given to his scenes with infamous Casanova Mr. Ma, played by legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-soo. As a master in the art of seduction Oh Dal-soo is on perfect form and is incredibly humorous and heart-warming, offering comical interludes to the melodramatic scenes. As the teacher to Kim Joo-hyeok’s student, the pair play off each other effectively, discussing not only the techniques of seduction but also the ramifications.

Ryu Seung-beom is wonderfully sadistic as scholar Lee Mong-ryong, oozing villainy and moral corruption throughout the film. Yet the actor also skillfully conveys the sensitivity and frailty of Mong-ryong, particularly in the first act – ably accompanied by ‘feminised’ clothing and mise-en-scene – that places him in contrast with Bang-ja’s rugged masculinity well. As such Ryu Seung-beom portrays a more tragic ne’er-do-well, one poisoned by bitterness and jealousy.

Bang-ja and Choon-hyang are punished for their transgressions

Bang-ja and Choon-hyang are punished for their transgressions

Verdict:

The Servant is a wonderfully scandalous Joseon era melodrama, and a highly engaging and compelling reinterpretation of the classic tale. The themes of social inequality, sexual liaisons and women’s rights are expertly intertwined by writer/director Kim Dae-woo, while it is Jo Yeo-jeong’s seminal performance that remarkably emphasizes the plight of Choon-hyang. While elements of misogyny and a slightly contrived final act are apparent, The Servant is a powerfully seductive film about the power of sex and love in a bygone era.

★★★★☆

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Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다) – ★★★☆☆

Over my Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Korean cinema has something of a love affair with partnering a mad-cap group of disparate individuals, who are  given the unenviable task of bringing the corrupt elite to justice. The repetition of such a narrative framework is undoubtedly ideologically founded, yet the translation of the sense of ‘Han’ within the team dynamic is often hit-and-miss. For every The Host (괴물) is a Once Upon a Time (원스 어폰 어 타임); for every Take Off (국가대표) is a Sector 7 (7광구).

Writer/director Wu Seon-ho’s (우선호) foray into the arena is more comically-macabre in nature as an exploited group of individuals attempt to ransom a corpse. As such Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)  provides a distinctly fresh approach to the concept yet never manages to fully capitialise on the premise, instead falling back on the tried-and-tested format – and cliches – of its forebearers. Luckily the addition of Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), who is a charismatic delight throughout, singlehandedly elevates Over My Dead Body out of mediocrity.

Protesting against the unscrupulous CEO of a technology firm, engineer Baek Hyeon-cheol (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) and his mentor throw eggs and chant slogans in the belief that the specialist microchip they have developed is being sold abroad. They are indeed correct, as the CEO has been faking an illness and has implanted the microchip within himself in a bid to smuggle the technology into America for a large profit. Yet through their persistance Hyeon-cheol and his senior reveal the fraud to the country, and in retaliation the mentor is brutally inured. Swearing revenge for the crimes against her father, Han Dong-hwa (Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) enlists the help of ever-reluctant Hyeon-cheol. However, with the shocking news of the CEO’s death the duo hatch a plan to steal the corpse and hold it to ransom – unwittingly stealing the microchip in the process. Yet when the corpse suddenly awakens to reveal conman Ahn Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), the trio must begrudgingly combine their skills in order to walk away with the money – and their lives.

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring to corrupt to justice

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring the corrupt to justice

Over My Dead Body begins in a fun but rather odd science-fiction fashion as Hyeon-cheol chases down a corrupt CEO who deals with advanced microchips and lasers. The premise of the film is then quickly set up, as Dong-hwa and Hyeon-cheol – who transforms from science-nerd to attractive middle-aged man in a matter of minutes – go about planning to steal the titular corpse. The duo’s theft is humorous and entertaining, as they fumble their way through security measures and unforeseen circumstances in a bid to complete their mission. The resulting getaway is also highly enjoyable, with Jin-oh’s awakening corpse routine a real highlight of the film.

It’s at this stage that Over My Dead Body seemingly runs out of ideas as a slew of underdeveloped characters are introduced that do little to continue the promising momentum of the first act. These stock characters are all stereotypical in nature, including the unintelligent gangster duo, bumbling National Intelligence Agency officers, and a host of security personal led by a nefarious kingpin. The narrative desperately attempts to juggle everyone and give them adequate relevance, but there are far too many and the story becomes bogged down as the central protagonists move from one set piece to the next. The decision to include such stereotypes also opens up a variety of cliched and predictable scenarios, some of which are humorous while others tend to fall flat, making the narrative lack compulsion with yet another case of mistaken identity and/or betrayal. By including so many narrative threads the central cast suffer from lack of development, particularly Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) whose talents are vastly under-utilized as she exists merely as ‘the sexy punk girl/love interest.’

Luckily Over My Dead Body is consistently rejuvenated whenever Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) appears, as his mixture of whacky antics, deviousness and over-acting are highly comical and drag the narrative out of any slumps that occur. Thanks to his wise inclusion the film never sinks into blandness, and makes the narrative much more compelling to see through to its conclusion.

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Lee Beom-soo is an interesting choice as science nerd Hyeon-cheol, and delivers a competent and likable performance. While he – as with his compatriots – suffers from lack of character development, Lee Beom-soo conducts himself as an intelligent ‘every-man’ well. The director’s decisions in regards to costume make it difficult to convey the character, as he strangely moves from geek to office worker to university student, a feature which is also reflected in his personality as it undergoes dramatic shifts from shy to intelligent to aggressive.

Kim Ok-bin is generally employed as a sexy love interest in playing Dong-hwa, and aside from inspiring the heist is incredibly undervalued. The actress plays the role of the strong, stubborn punk well yet there are few scenes in which her character is allowed to convey more, with her pink hair and cell phone charms the only indicators to greater depth. An effort is made to connect her with her sick father, yet such sparse time is dedicated it barely registers.

Ryoo Seung-beom is seemingly the only actor who understands the tongue-in-cheek farcical nature of the narrative, and over-acts in each scene with wonderful charisma. Yet throughout his performance he also keeps the audience guessing as to whether Jin-oh is a hyper-intelligent fraudster or genuinely mentally unstable, making him a comical and entertaining protagonist within each scene. Again, little depth is ascribed to Jin-oh yet his presence and hyperactivity circumvents criticism in this regard as the film is elevated largely due to him.

Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Jin-oh’s wacky antics continually entertain

Verdict:

Over My Dead Body offers an interesting and comically-macabre spin on the crime heist sub-genre, and often succeeds in being entertaining throughout due to the premise. Yet the film largely falls into cliche and predictability following the first act due to the reliance upon an array of stock characters and a lack of inventiveness.  However Ryoo Seung-beom’s presence consistently raises the film, and fans of the actor will not be disappointed as Over My Dead Body is an enjoyable film largely thanks to him.

★★★☆☆

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Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

The Unjust (부당거래) – ★★★★☆

The Unjust (부당거래)

The Unjust (부당거래)

If there is one universal truth within Korean cinema, it is the representation of every level of the law enforcement infrastructure as incompetent, unprofessional, and corrupt. In certain cases, such as true-life thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the result can be an incredibly intense and fascinating character study; in other more generic offerings such as S.I.U. (2011) the incompetence of the force is frustratingly infuriating. Yet regardless of whether the central protagonist(s) are operating within law enforcement or without, the abuse of human rights, flagrant disregard for procedure and scandalous corruption are seemingly inherent to the respective institutions.

The Unjust (부당거래), director Ryoo Seung-wan‘s (류승완) eighth feature, continues such ideological distrust with the auteur’s trademark wit, ingenuity and postmodern sensibilities. With an incredible screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정), The Unjust is a highly engaging and intense thriller featuring electric performances by the principal cast and arguably the highlight of Ryoo Seung-wan’s career thus far, winning ‘Best Film’ at 2011 The Blue Dragon Awards.

With intense mounting pressure from the media, citizens and politicians, the police are desperate to catch the perpetrator of the serial rape and murder of young girls in Seoul. Yet when the only major suspect is killed, the law enforcement are in dire need of someone to take the blame and to be held accountable. Director Kang (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) believes he has the perfect officer to find such a scapegoat – Choi Cheol-gi  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), an incredibly efficient officer who is routinely passed over for promotion as he did not emerge through the academy. Employing the help of gangster Jang Seok-goo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), the pair find a viable replacement. Yet Jang’s corrupt business rival enlists the help of Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find something – anything – that will stop Jang and Choi and allow his business to prosper. As the fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined, they delve deeper into a moral abyss from which they may never return.

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

The script by Park Hoon-jeong – which received the best screenplay award at The Blue Dragon Awards – wonderfully balances the array of characters and plot threads at an incredible pace, rarely slowing the momentum or intensity. From the second the film begins the speed at which the narrative is set-up and the players are introduced is spectacular, conveying the seriousness of the situation convincingly. Director Ryoo Seung-wan – who also received an award at The Blue Dragon Awards for best directing – brings the script to life with confidence and style, with camera movement and rapid editing raising the level of excitement to a staggering level. The partnership between both filmmakers is seemingly a perfect match as their respective styles compliment one another in tone, pace and content. The array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties within The Unjust are vast, from minor subtle issues such as favoritism within the police department, public hysteria and presidential involvement, to more scandalous affairs including secret meetings with criminals, corruption, and personal promotion over public service.

The relationships between protagonists and the various underhanded methods employed to gain leverage are brilliantly portrayed and are highly engaging. In particular Detective Choi and Prosecutor Joo-yang are excellent character studies as well as serving as mirrors of each other, of which they are subconsciously aware as they attempt to prove their superiority through obtaining incriminating evidence. Their methods of corruption are wonderfully explored, with Detective Choi more violent, impoverished and urban while Prosecutor Joo-yang meets executives at fancy restaurants and is introduced to high-ranking officials through his father-in-law. Even the gangsters they deal with have differing social statuses, and as such The Unjust is also concerned with class divide and power, as well as the motivations and loop-holes that are exploited in corrupting those within.

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Hwang Jeong-min gives a towering performance as Detective Choi Cheol-gi, with his absence from the ‘Best Actor’ category a bizarre oversight. The actor convincing conveys the underdog cop as a violent and diligent yet honest man, who is forced to sink ever-lower due to the request of his captain. His mere physical presence adds intensity to each scene with his height and mannerisms an intimidatingly powerful force. Hwang Jeong-min is so compelling as the violent corrupt cop that when he eventually breaks down it is something of a visceral shock, adding a dimension to his character that creates empathy despite his crimes.

Ryoo Seung-beom is also highly competent as Prosecutor Joo-yang, conveying weasely charm in abundance and is a delight to hate. The actor, nominated for his role, also adds a comedic sensibility to his role as he slithers from one lie to the next as he attempts to rectify his situation wth his superiors and corrupt colleagues. As a slight negative, Ryoo Seung-beom does have a tendency to shout his lines rather than act them which can be distracting.

As street gangster-turned-businessman Jang Seok-goo, actor Yoo Hae-jin is terrific. Also nominated for his supporting role, Yoo Hae-jin oozes criminality and effectively conveys his internal war with his urban thug mentality hiding beneath his fitted suits. The actor clearly relishes scenes in which he gains the upper-hand, smarmy and condescending with glee at the misfortune of his rivals and partners.

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Verdict:

The Unjust is not simply another continuation of Korean cinema’s distrust of law enforcement agencies; it is an incredibly thrilling and compelling exploration of an array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties, articulated with an intelligent script and visualised with a career-best by director Ryoo Seung-wan. The fast pace, confident stylisation and electric performances make The Unjust one of the best cop thrillers in recent years and a fantastic addition to the genre.

★★★★☆

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Byeong-woo's ambition makes him a hot property

Suicide Forecast (수상한 고객들) – ★★★☆☆

Suicide Forecast (수상한 고객들)

Suicide Forecast (수상한 고객들)

South Korea has the unfortunate statistic of having the highest suicide rate among all 30 OECD countries. Over forty people a day take their own lives, and the reasons behind such tragedy are complex to say the least. As such, suicide often features within Korean films although it tends to occur organically in the narrative,  due to mistreatment or illness for example. Enter Suicide Forecast (수상한 고객들), a film that places the intentions of suicide as the central concept of the narrative. Bizarrely, Suicide Forecast promotes itself as a comedic exploration of the macabre subject matter, yet in reality it’s more of a dramatic foray. While examining the oft-ignored subject of suicide through film is to be commended, the rather superficial nature of the narrative renders Suicide Forecast somewhat impotent.

Bae Byeong-woo (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) is a retired professional baseball player, now working in the world of insurance. He is ambitious and driven, yet his constant desire for money upsets his girlfriend Lee Hye-in (Seo Ji-hye (서지혜) resulting in a break-up. Simultaneously, Byeong-woo is accused of helping a client commit suicide and fraudulently claim life insurance through exploiting a loophole in the contract. As he reminisces about his position in life, Byeong-woo recalls that two years prior he, in order to become the best salesperson, sold life insurance policies to four suicide survivors. According to the contract, should they die within two years of signing the contract they will receive nothing; but with the deadline approaching, Byeon-woo must try and convince the policy holders to switch to a retirement plan or else the company will lose a fortune. Yet upon meeting his clients – unemployed divorcee Oh Sang-yeol (Park Cheol-min (박철민), widowed mother-of-four Choi Bok-soon (Jeong Seon-kyeong (정선경), poverty stricken young musician Ahn So-yeon (안소연, Younha (윤하), and Tourette’s suffering beggar Kim Yeong-tak (Im Joo-hwan (임주환) – Byeong-woo’s selfish motivations begin to change.

Byeong-woo's ambition makes him a hot property

Byeong-woo’s ambition makes him a hot property

Suicide Forecast is similar in nature to the family-friendly films of Jim Carrey, such as as Liar Liar (1997) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011). Ryoo Seung-beom is never as flamboyantly excessive as Carrey, but the generic career-man-learns-the-importance-of-compassion is present and as predictable as ever. Carrey however always brings charm and charisma to such roles conveying that his protagonists are never bad but misguided, features which Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) is considerably lacking in Suicide Forecast to the point of being incredibly unlikeable. Byeong-woo may well be the top salesperson but his arrogant, selfish, inconsiderate and disrespectful manner are difficult to ignore. The premise is sound and has plenty of potential – that a man fixated by consumerism must seek out and stop those intent on suicide, learning something in the process – yet it takes a long long time before Byeong-woo’s character remotely alters due to the plodding second act. His clients are all interesting and compelling protagonists, each with their own hardships that are conveyed poignantly but never slip into sentimentalism. It’s a real shame that these characters were not developed further than the relatively superficial portrayal of their lives, as they are the foundation upon which the narrative is formed. While the subject matter may be somewhat macabre, the narrative consistently attempts to inject light-hearted comedy moments to halt the descent into bleak territory. The jokes generally succeed although they tend to highlight further character flaws in Byeong-woo, and as such the comedy is often flat.

Byeong-woo is shocked by his client's lifestyle

Byeong-woo is shocked by his client’s lifestyle

Suicide Forecast is competently directed throughout by Jo Jin-mo, particularly in the more dramatic sequences in the third act as time runs out. It is here that the acting capabilities of all the cast are displayed, especially Ryoo Seung-beom who conveys intensity as he struggles to reach his clients in time. The predictability, and the lack of character development (and thus empathy), does slightly undermine his performance however. Additionally, Byeong-woo’s instant transformation of character from shrewd insurance salesman to compassionate friend requires something of a leap in disbelief considering his earlier behaviour. Despite the cliches, the finale is touching with the moral message that – given a chance and encouragement – those suffering from the hardships of life can shine. It must also be noted however that the bizarre incorporation of Byeong-woo’s former career as a professional baseball player is forcibly shoehorned into the film, and serves to dramatically detract from the core plot.

Byeong-woo races against time to save his clients

Byeong-woo races against time to save his clients

Verdict:

For tackling such an important and delicate issue within Korean culture, Suicide Forecast must be commended. The potential of a comedy-drama exploring such themes is enormous, which perhaps explains why the narrative appears to be intimidated by the subject matter and the ‘comedy’ aspect tends to fail. The suicidal client’s are compelling despite their general lack of depth, and the predictable finale is still heart-warming. Suicide Forecast is an interesting take on a pertinent and often ill-judged element of society that, while cliched and predictable, offers a poignant reminder that greed and consumerism does not equate to happiness.

★★★☆☆

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