The aerial dogfights are thrilling as pilots battle over Seoul

R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스) – ★★☆☆☆

R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스)

R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스)

When Top Gun was released in 1986, Tom Cruise and company presented aerial combat in thrilling fashion alongside a bombastic soundtrack. Despite the shallow story, the rapid high-octane action sequences, muscular homoerotic camaraderie, and zealous nationalism succinctly tapped in to the ’80s zeitgeist, resulting in an unprecedented level of applications for the American Air Force and rocketing sales of aviator sunglasses.

R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스) has been marketed as ‘the Korean Top Gun‘ and rightly so as the film borders on plagiarism with scenes, characters and events almost directly ‘lifted’ from Tony Scott’s effort. Yet R2B: Return to Base has precious little of the charm of the original, only earning the title of ‘action movie’ in the final 20 minutes largely due to a reliance on TV drama-esque stereotypes and stock conflicts for much of the film. That said, the aerial sequences are indeed thrilling regardless of the logic – and physics – defying feats.

Cocky pilot Jeong Tae-hoon (Rain/Jung Ji-oon (비/정지훈) is unceremoniously kicked out of his squadron for performing dangerous aerial techniques in front of the public. Demoted into military ranks, Tae-hoon meets beautiful mechanic Yoo Se-yeong (Sin Se-kyeong (신세경) and new recruit Ji Seok-hyeon (Lee Jung-seok (이종석), as well as forming a rivalry with stoic Lee Cheol-hee (Yu Joon-sang (유준상). As friendships and camaraderie builds on base, a new threat presents itself in North Korea where a coup threatens to destabilize the peace between the nations. With tensions escalating, it’s up to Tae-hoon and Cheol-hee to set aside their grudges and work together to save South Korea from the machinations of a power-hungry Northern General and his pilots.

Tae-hoon is demoted due to his arrogance and inability to follow orders

Tae-hoon is demoted due to his arrogance and inability to follow orders

Surprisingly, for a film marketed on its action sequences, R2B: Return to Base features few sequences that excite. Aside from a fun opening that introduces hot-shot pilot Tae-hoon, the real action takes place only during the last 20 minutes during an exhilarating sequence where a rogue North Korean pilot descends on the Yeouido district in central Seoul and an aerial assault on a Northern base. Director Kim Dong-weon (김동원) clearly used the majority of the budget on such high-octane events, conveying the speed and danger of the dogfights convincingly and effectively. The aerial battle above Seoul is the genuine highlight of the film as bullets fly and windows shatter on iconic landmarks in wonderful use of slow-motion, producing an entertainingly horrifying attack on the capital city.

However for the vast majority of its running time  R2B: Return to Base plays out akin to a low-grade TV drama. All the stereotypes are present with frustrating clarity. The hero Tae-hoon has obviously been modeled on Tom Cruise’s Maverick, yet Rain/Jung Ji-hoon doesn’t have the same charisma to make the protagonist likable. Maverick’s arrogance and swagger fits perfectly with American cultural values; Tae-hoon is generally an insolent, selfish fool that defies orders for the sake of it. His love interest, in the form of Se-yeong, fares worse as she is reduced to yet another beautiful-yet-damaged female role, a woman in need of rescuing from herself despite her talents. Outside of the main two protagonists are an array of supporting cast members, so much so that precious little time is given to establish them as worthy of inclusion. Cheol-hee arguably receives the most screen-time as the rival, although his character development is stunted which dilutes the antagonism with Tae-hoon. Novice Seok-hyeon is present mainly for comedy value as he screams and faints during flights, providing entertainment. Comedy is also present in the form of two workmen fulfilling military service, but after featuring in a handful of quips they unceremoniously disappear altogether. Other co-pilots feature in the film such as Oh Yoo-jin (Lee Ha-na (이하나) and partner Jo Tae-bong (Jeong Kyung-ho (정경호), but again their inclusion is a limited attempt to add melodrama to the proceedings. All the of the characters are involved in stock narrative events that help to establish relationships but do little to propel the plot, which is conveyed as an afterthought.

Feisty Yoo Se-yeong is the most talented mechanic on the base

Feisty Yu Se-yeong is the most talented mechanic on the base

One of the amazing features of Korean cinema is the continual representation of North Korean adversaries in three-dimensional, semi-sympathetic roles. R2B: Return to Base opts for the American approach of ‘good vs. evil’, barely giving the Northern enemies faces let alone impetus. This would perhaps not be as bad – it was a feature of Top Gun – if not for their last minute inclusion within the narrative, as suddenly a rogue Northern general launches an unprovoked attack on Seoul seemingly from out of nowhere. The assault does allow for the inclusion of Korean nationalism and masculine bravado however as the American military attempts to dominate the retaliation to embarrassing effect, as well as providing Tae-hoon and Cheol-hee with something to do other than bicker.

In terms of performance, Sin Se-kyeong is arguably the most prominent as mechanic Se-yeong. The actress has little room to extend herself given the highly stereotyped nature of the role, yet she performs well. The chemistry between her and co-star Rain/Jung Ji-hoon however is entirely absent. Rain/Jung Ji-hoon competently performs the role of arrogant pilot Tae-hoon but unfortunately he is also hindered but the script which portrays him as an immature fool rather than overly confident, a feature which his charisma tries and fails to overcome.

The aerial dogfights are thrilling as pilots battle over Seoul

The aerial dogfights are thrilling as pilots battle over Seoul

Verdict:

R2B: Return to Base desperately wants to be ‘the Korean Top Gun‘, and succeeds in as much as containing some highly thrilling and entertaining aerial sequences that convey the speed and danger of aerial dogfights. Yet such sparse combat scenes cannot hide the vacuous, TV drama-esque narrative and stereotypes that dominate most of the running time, as well as the lack of threat featured by the caricatured North Korean adversaries. With the last minute inclusion of masculine bravado and nationalism, R2B: Return to Base rises out of its quagmire yet still fails to obtain its full potential.

★★☆☆☆

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Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend's death

Hindsight (푸른 소금) – ★★★☆☆

Hindsight (푸른 소금)

Hindsight (푸른 소금)

Gangsters attempting to retire from a life of organised crime is an oft-explored subject within the gangster genre. Leaving the syndicate prompts an array of scenarios. Is it possible to live a ‘normal’ non-violent life? Can the vacuum of power be fulfilled without anarchy? Perhaps most importantly, can the organisation allow the risk of a member, who is privy to countless illegal activities, to live?

Hindsight (푸른 소금) attempts to address such hypothetical questions as second-in-command Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho (송강호) retires from the syndicate he co-founded to open a restaurant. While the premise has potential and action sequences convey directorial flair, the cliches, absence of identity and lack of narrative cohesion make Hindsight quite a disappointment.

Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho) lives in the laid-back port city of Busan, studying the culinary arts in order to open his own restaurant. He retired from a Seoul criminal syndicate he co-founded years earlier, turning his back on his former violent lifestyle yet is still friendly with members of the organisation. Doo-heon’s new carefree life has led to forging a friendship with a fellow student in his cooking class, a young and feisty woman named Se-bin (Sin Se-kyeong (신세경), who often jokingly chastises him for his poor abilities in the kitchen. However things change when word of his best friend, and head of the criminal empire, dies in an accident. As the former second-in-command Doo-heon can lead the syndicate, yet other mob bosses have other ideas and order their mole – Se-bin – to kill Doo-heon.

Doo-heon and Se-bin become close during their culinary class

Doo-heon and Se-bin become close during their culinary class

Hindsight‘s real title ‘푸른 소금’ directly translates as ‘blue salt’, both of which are continually referenced through the film. Blue filters and metallic mise-en-scene are often employed by director Lee Hyeon-seung (이현승), conveying the cold and harsh, yet futuristic and stylish, lifestyle of gangster Doo-yeon and his associates. It is through such scenes that Lee Hyeon-seung excels, conveying the isolated sophistication with confidence and the action sequences with real skill. His vision in the final confrontation is also of note, employing blue filters to a stand-off in a field of rice paddies that is visually impressive.

Where Hindsight falters is through ‘salt’, a device so overused that it quickly becomes tiresome and is symbolic of the abundance of cliches and narrative shortcomings. Salt is constantly employed in an unsubtle fashion in order to develop the relationship between Doo-heon and Se-bin, but the references are often inorganic and highlight the artificiality of the plot device. When Se-bin constructs ‘salt bullets’ for her targets the predictability becomes painfully clear while a leap in the suspension of disbelief is required for the narrative to remain logical and enjoyable. This unfortunately also applies to the narrative as a whole which contains vast plot holes, thoughtless characterization, and a lack of synergy between the disparate parts. While the amalgamation of different genres is one of the highly entertaining features of Korean cinema, in Hindsight it serves to remove any sense of identity and narrative cohesion. When the gangsters search for Doo-hyeon – an easy task considering he stays within his apartment – any sense of threat posed by the assassins is destroyed by the overly-long focus on his relationship with Se-bin. When Se-bin’s dual identity is revealed, a bizarre MTV style montage of her dancing with a friend appears rendering the drama moot. Director/screenwriter Lee Hyeon-seung seemingly can’t decide if Hindsight is a gangster film or a love story, with the rigid narrative framework and lack of editing between the two worlds also largely responsible for halting the suture between them.

Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend's death

Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend’s death

Characterization and performance are further issues within Hindsight. Much has been said regarding Sin Se-kyeong’s acting skills, with critics claiming she ‘holds her own’ against screen legend Song Kang-ho. While she certainly gives a competent performance, Hindsight is very far from Song Kang-ho at his best. His character schizophrenically flits from overly kind middle-aged man to psychotic maniac, further adding to the lack of cohesion between the romantic and gangster genres within. To his credit Song Kang-ho is charismatic in both capacities, which unfortunately emphasizes the wasted potential of the premise. Sin Se-kyeong has similar problems portraying Se-bin, a cliched female protagonist who is stereotypically beautiful-yet-damaged, one minute stone-cold killer and the next sweet and innocent. Despite this, she performs the role ably.

The same cannot be said for the array of gangsters, all of whom are woefully underdeveloped. In addition to the overabundance of criminals, they are also subjected to a disproportionate amount of screen time compared to Doo-heon and Se-bin equating to a severe absence of threat and drama with the various betrayals and murders that ensue.

Se-bin is ordered to kill Doo-heon

Se-bin is ordered to kill Doo-heon

Verdict:

Hindsight (푸른 소금) is a problematic entry into the gangster genre due to the lack of cohesion between the disparate genres in conjunction with simplified and underdeveloped characterization. As such the film’s identity and the narrative direction are often highly ambiguous, despite the competent direction particularly in regard to the action sequences, that make Hindsight an occasionally stimulating but rather flawed addition.

★★★☆☆

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