The Traffickers (Gong-mo-ja-deul)

Korea (2012) Dir. Hong-seon Kim

After his best friend is killed during a failed mission, black market organ trafficker Young-gyu (Im Chang-jung) decides to put this life behind him. But a girl he is sweet on, Yu-ri (Jo Yoon-hee), is in desperate need for money to pay for her father’s surgery so Young-gyu decides to do one more job to help her out and win her over.

With his team that operates on a ship that travels between Korea and China – surgeon Old Man (Oh Dal-Su), youngster Dae-Woong (Lee Young-Hoon) and clumsy Joon-Sik (Jo Dal-Hwan) – they set sail one last time, targeting wheelchair bound Chae-Hee (Jung Ji-Yoon) who is on the cruise with her husband insurance salesman Sang-Ho (Daniel Choi). But when Chae-hee goes missing the last person to see her was Yu-ri, who, unbeknownst to Yung-Gyu, was taking her father to China for his operation.

If there is one thing we can count on from Korean cinema it is a grisly, stomach churning thriller that pushes film rating boundaries and keep you on the edge of your seat. This debut offering from Hong-seon Kim certainly fits the bill but while there is room for improvement on the story front with possibly one twist too many, it is a competent and watchable enough romp for a first timer – if you have the stomach for it that is. But with a topic of organ trafficking the gore factor shouldn’t be a surprise but the truth is most of it comes from the violence that comes with the fall out of the various double dealings as a result of the many plot twists.

At first things seem a little aimless while introducing the characters and setting up the main plot. We open with a flashback to explain the death of Young-gyu’s friend Yong-cheol (Gong Jeong-hwan) which prompts Young-gyu’s change of profession from organ trafficker to drug smuggling using female couriers swallowing the goods – presumably his idea of going straight.

Young-gyu is also in debt to underworld loan shark Dong-bae (Shin Seung-hwan) who angrily sabotages a shipment transaction for Young-gyu by calling in customs, forcing him to take on this last organ job. Young-gyu is initially resistant until he learns that Yu-ri took out an 80 million dollar won loan from Dong-bae for her father’s operation.

The action picks up as the gang swoop into action picking out the fated Chae-hee with a series of slick interactions between their various resources around the ship’s port both on the official and unofficial ranks. Onboard the ship and our black marketeers setup shop in the ship’s sauna while a frantic Sang-ho and a helpful Yu-ri – who met Chae-hee on the deck earlier – search for the unwilling organ donor.

This may seem a bit audacious turning such a public amenity into a makeshift operating theatre but they somehow get away with it, seeing as it is night and everyone else is supposedly asleep. Sang-ho has no luck with the ship’s staff who refuse to take the idea a missing paraplegic seriously (serious customer service issues there), hindering each successive step he takes closer to finding Chae-hee. Kim does however manage to create some nice tense moments, especially when Sang-Ho does manage to gain entry to the sauna, just one of many “so near yet so far” teases in the film.

The story doesn’t end on the ship as the organs still need to be delivered once they arrive in China as well as the operation on Yu-ri’s father. This is where the story starts to overload on twists and turns. Suddenly almost everyone isn’t who they seem, revealing either a hidden agenda or a hitherto unseen softer side. The film is littered with small clues that one needs top keep an eye for, no matter how innocuous it may seem.

Some get the flashback treatment as a reminder, others a tiny piece of unseen exposition that fills in the blanks. While such diversions and mis-directions are welcome to keep the viewer completely engaged, Kim has gone a bit too far with turn after turn after turn. When the central antagonist is finally revealed – I should say reveals himself in a far too open manner – it makes little sense as does the elaborate scheme which is the genesis of this whole adventure in the first place.

Then there is the violence and gore and the latter is the correct word to use here. I’ve seen horror films with less blood spillage and extreme bodily harm. Throats are slit, eyes are gouged and the claret literally flows by the gallon while the surgical scenes are barely explicit or unsettling; in fact the sight of Old Man slobbering and feasting over the bare breasts of a comatose Chae-hee is more unpleasant.

As the violence becomes more outrageous the more comical it begins to look which I assume was not Kim’s objective. He is lucky however that his reliable cast throw themselves into their roles and do their best to make their characters as believable as possible under some of the circumstances.

After an awkward first act Traffickers turns into a serviceable thriller which deserves praise for its bold approach and grisly subject matter but it gets too overambitious in the complexity department and ends up tripping over itself in trying to be too clever. It’s an assured debut nonetheless and shows promise for writer/director Kim’s future works.