The Suspect (Yong-eui-ja)

Korea (2013) Dir. Won Shin-yeon

Former North Korean special forces agent Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) was abandoned during a mission when political power changed. Upon learning his wife and daughter were killed, Dong-chul defected to the South where he works as the chauffeur for industrialist Park Geon-ho (Song Jae-ho) who has ties with the North.

One night Park is assassinated but before his dies he gives Dong-chul a pair of glasses and tells him to “bury it”. When the police arrive they find Dong-chul’s gun was used to finish Park off. Drill Sergeant Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon), who has history with Dong-chul, is enlisted to lead the manhunt but along the way both men uncover a complex web of corruption and deceit among the official ranks.

If you asked most people what sort of film genre best exemplifies the output from Korea, chances are “violent thriller” will be the most common answer; yet as we know they are more than capable of creating taut and compelling crime dramas, kooky comedies and unsettling horror films. The Suspect steps up to demonstrate that Korea can also so the big budget action crime drama too, delivering a frantic and chaotic adrenaline rush that could easily rival the Bonds and Bournes of the world.

Known mostly for films in the other mentioned genres, Won Shin-yeon gives the action thriller a go and makes a good fist of it, despite his occasional tribute to Michael Bay with his ADD style fast cut editing during some of the action scenes. Thankfully this is limited to the early going and things slow down a bit for the later set pieces which are rather spectacular.

Recalling the great car chases of the 70’s and 80’s in which vehicles sped through the city streets, pavements, shopping malls, in fact anywhere with a flat (ish) surface causing as much mayhem and damage as possible, Won takes this to new heights with the stunt team and leading man Gong Yoo displaying some accurately reckless driving skills that even The Stig would bow down to.

It’s not quite damning The Suspect with faint praise to say these scenes are clear highlights but the truth is they are, although the story isn’t the usual flimsy excuse for testosterone fuelled carnage as found in Hollywood. The plot itself is fairly basic but the execution is not, with a large cast double crossing each other leading to a series of twists whenever the truth is close to being revealed.

The first act plays out in a slightly convoluted fashion skipping between flashbacks and present day action with no set agenda, with the introduction of the key players is also rather haphazard. This means it takes a while for the specific roles and loyalties of these people to register with the viewer, making following the plot a little unhelpful if you don’t know which character is on what side.

What we do know is that President Park had a deal with someone in the North and the chemical formula for this particular substance has been cleverly etched onto a flimsy strip of clear plastic and melted into one of the lenses of the glasses Park gave Dong-chul. With Dong-chul being an ex-military man and a defector from the North, it was fairly easy for the real culprit to stir up sufficient animus to expediate his arrest. Meanwhile these same forces want the glasses so they can sell of the formula to the highest bidder in the North and if that means manipulating the system then so be it.

Not only do they have to contend with Dong-chul’s superior combat and survival skills but TV documentary maker Choi Gyung-Hee (Yoo Da-in) has also uncovered a number of secrets for a film she is making about the North. While this pairing yields many results for their individual and joint quests, it also puts Choi’s life in greater risk as she is now an accomplice to a wanted criminal.

Once the dust settles and the various parties are now known to the audience, there is seldom a dull moment even if Im Sang-yoon’s script does incorporate some familiar conventions of the action genre. Interestingly this isn’t a film about the North and South meaning no political favouritism is displayed here, which helps Dong-chul acceptance as the hero of the film much easier since the North are always the enemy in films made in the South. And to flesh him out as more than a programmed killing machine, the emotional backstory of the death of his family play a huge part in centralising his character as a hurt and vengeful human being first and foremost.

As mentioned earlier, Gong Yoo did a large portion of his own stunts, of which there are plenty and I am pleased to say, many of which are CGI free. The driving stunts are remarkably well staged, throwing in some old spots to compliment the exciting new ones created for this film. Korea’s unique architecture and structural designs are key facets in the danger of some of the stunts, including those steep steps they have on roads in place of hills, which Yoo navigates in reverse!

The public streets and main roads aren’t excluded either with the vehicle wreckage count totalling well into the double figures by the end. Sadly we get the obligatory “man takes a nasty spill in his car but walks out unscathed” moment but overall the human damage is handled more credibly than usual in this situation.

For sheer intense, hard hitting action with a well thought out revenge and corruption plot you could do a lot worse than The Suspect. The 137 minute run time is a tad excessive but the overall enjoyment factor isn’t necessarily marred by this, giving us plenty of bang for our buck.

As for Hollywood – it looks like your crown as Action King is in jeopardy!


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