Korea (2015) Dir. Choi Dong-hoon
Having broken Korean box offices records in 2012 with the ensemble heist caper The Thieves, director Choi Dong-hoon reunites with many key members of the cast for this 1930’s set epic, in the hope that lightning will strike twice.
In 1911 as Japan was establishing its colonial rule of South Korea, duplicitous Korean businessman Kang In-guk (Lee Gyeong-yeong) is caught up in an assassination attempt on the Japanese man he was trying to broker a deal with. Learning his wife was sheltering the assassin Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae), In-guk has her shot while Seok-jin was arrested but later escapes jail.
Now in 1933 Seok-jin, an agent for the provisional Korean government, has been given the order to assassinate In-guk and Mamoru Kawaguchi (Shim Cheol-jong), governor of the Japanese garrison in Seoul. Seok-jin is permitted the release from prison of three skilled Korean activists to aid him – sniper An Ok-yun (Gianna Jun), explosives expert Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Deok-mun) and weapons dealer Chu Sang-ok (Jo Jin-ung) aka Big Gun.
Choi was definitely thinking big with this film, something the bloated 140 minute run time will attest to as much as the sprawling and often convoluted script does. The above to paragraphs don’t even begin to hint at the full plot, much of which can’t be discussed for fear of spoiling it. Choi and screenwriter Lee Ki-cheol have crafted an almost labyrinthine story packed with twists and turns, thrills and spills and some gentle comedy thrown in for good measure.
The first forty minutes or so are spent introducing the characters and the various factions and it is wise to pay careful attention because it doesn’t take long for the lines to be blurred and affiliations to be doubted. The locations at this point are varied, flitting between Korea and Manchuria in Northeastern China where the Korean rebels hide away from the Japanese.
We eventually settle in Seoul for the second half of the film but not before we take a whistle stop tour of Shanghai. While the Japanese are en route to China in what would eventually become the infamous Second Sino-Japanese War, the Koreans were keen on liberating their country which was made difficult by numerous turncoats siding with the enemy to save their own skins.
One of the key cast members is among this number and in order to thwart the titular assassination has hired notorious hitman known as Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and his sidekick Old Man (Oh Dal-su) to take the appointed Korean trio out under the pretence that they are Japanese agents. Hawaii actually encounters Ok-yun in a hotel during an ID search by the local military in one of the rare predictable turn of events which thankfully doesn’t reach a predictable conclusion.
You may have surmised by now that for a film of this length, the original assassination attempt doesn’t go according to the detailed and well-formulated plan. The above paragraph goes some way to explaining why but gives birth to a second sub plot involving In-guk’s daughter Mitsuko, who just happens to be the splitting image of Ok-yun.
Fans of The Thieves will recognise not just the returning cast but the similar structure of the story with the cadre of skilled bad asses brought together for the sake of an international cross-pollination deal, replete with thrilling action scenes and big set pieces to provide the sizzle. This is not to accuse Choi of being a one trick pony but to highlight a director who knows his forte, his audience expectations and how to turn in a variation on a theme without it seeming like a relocated rehashing of ideas.
Assassination differs in many ways – it is less cheeky for a start and deeply nationalistic without being overtly repellent in its flag waving. In The Thieves we were asked to root for a bunch of criminals-cum-de facto protagonists – here the central characters are arguably flawed (Ok-yun was jailed for “accidentally” shooting her superior) but are fighting for a noble and just cause.
While many explosive set pieces exist here they are framed within the period setting meaning no anachronistic fancy is on hand to ruin the superb immersion into 1930’s Asia. The sets, costumes, vehicles and weaponry are authentically replicated and the Korean cast also speak fluent Japanese, a bonus in enhancing the realism of the entire experience.
However with so much going on, the characters are afforded much room to develop or be explored emotionally, their actions telling their stories by way of compensating for this. In particular the turn coat who is seen on trail in 1949 for his crimes against his country; this is one person whose motives and point of view needs to be understood above anyone else’s yet we get just a whiff of this in the film’s drawn out coda.
Choi is a smart man though and knows he can cover up any shortcomings with a stellar cast and relying on his collaborators from The Thieves benefitted him as much as it does the film’s equity. Front and centre is Gianna Jun in dual roles of a dowdy but lethal sniper and a spoiled, glamorous socialite. Jun acquits herself in both roles – especially in a superbly staged scene of the two ladies together – but convinces more as Ok-yun, doing her own stunts once again.
The men deliver admirably too – Lee Jeong-jae as poker faced Yeom Seok-jin holds his own against the testosterone of Ha Jung-woo and Oh Dal-su along with the pseudo buffoonery of Choi Deok-mun and Jo Jin-ung. Those playing Japanese character have observed the nuances of both the language and physical mannerisms which is nice to see.
If any criticism can be held against Assassination it is that 140 minutes is excessive for the story being told. Some prudent trimming and readjusting of the script would help its international appeal but with his second film to exceed 10 million admissions domestically, Choi must be doing something right!