The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)
Korea (2015) Dir. Oh Seung-Uk
If the number one rule instilled in future police officers is not “never fall in love with a criminals wife/girlfriend/lover” then it really should be, even if it does mostly apply to fictional cops on the big screen. Returning to the director’s chair after 15 years, Oh Seung-Uk explains why in this meshing of genres.
Park Joon-kil (Park Sung-Woong) returns home to his lover Kim Hye-Kyung (Jeon Do-Yeon) having just committed a murder. Whilst the police are on the case, detective Jung Jae-Gon (Kim Nam-Gil) is approached by a corrupt former senior Moon Ki-beom (Kwak Do-won), to do a favour for a friend Min Young-ki (Kim Min-Jae) – shoot Joon-Kil in the leg for a $5000 pay off.
Joon-kil was once a heavy for Yong-Ki’s boss, but embezzled money from him and stole Hye-Kyung from him. Since Jae-Gon is in debt to Ki-beom he reluctantly takes the job, posing as the new owner of the bar Hye-kyung works at, using her as bait to get to Joon-kil, but Jae-Gon finds himself falling for Hye-kyung.
He may have avoided helming a film for over a decade but Oh Seung-Uk has continued to be a prolific screenwriter during that time and it would appear he has kept abreast of what makes Korean cinema a unique blend of idea and genres. The Shameless is a kind of noir melodrama with some sweaty sex and a touch of trademark gritty violence wrapped up in an arthouse veneer.
This seamlessly melded concoction results in a film that boasts an awkward pace and issues in establishing the characters in the first act, not helped by some choppy editing which serves to confuse timelines a little. Causing further distraction is the fact that Jae-Gon and Joon-kil are slightly similar in appearance, at least at the start in which their encounters occur at night. Thankfully, after this rushed set up, thing settle down and we soon gets to grips with the main story.
We are to assume that this tale is as much about the corruption in the police force and the inner workings of (so called) reputable businesses but what tends to stand out more is the almost inherent misogyny prevalent in Asian culture and by extension its cinema. Aimed mostly at Hye-kyung, she is a madam at the bar named Macau which is losing money and while she can still turn heads, Hye-kyung – being polite – won’t see 40 again.
Hye-kyung’s reputation precedes her, having apparently been intimate – professionally at least – with many of the men in this story and as such, her worth to them as a human being is negligible. Only Jae-Gon and the mostly absent Joon-kil feel differently but while he can openly demonstrate this, Joon-kil has to bite his tongue, especially when those behind his illicit undercover mission overstep the mark with their appalling behaviour.
But Jae-Gon has a reputation too among his colleagues whilst there is a retained connection between him and his ex-wife which isn’t elaborated on too much aside from some financial transactions and occasional phone calls from her. The simmering sexual frisson between Jae-Gon and Hye-kyung is left pretty low key for the most part, as if Uk is teasing us with the idea of teasing us with the idea that something may happen.
Aside from uncertain side glances the signals sent are deliberately ambiguous to the point of non-existence, the closest to anything coming from some mutual hitting of the bottle after a trying day – that said, Hye-kyung has a bit of a head start on that front. As a femme fatale Hye-kyung is one of the more unique to grace the silver screen, damaged goods but to an extent we can only guess how deep it runs.
Jae-Gon is a decent cop with a slightly askew moral compass who gets results, but he is constantly hiding behind a poker face, making it difficult for the audience to read his thoughts and motives. Whatever Hye-kyung sees in him must be down to pheromones or telepathic signals otherwise for the audience, the spark between them has origins in the ether or through simple proximity.
Without much of the way of a twist, the closest being the eventual revelation of Jae-Gon’s identity which does offer a poignant denouement, the story coasts along with the all the usual elements of a Korean crime drama we’ve seen before. The presentation however is very slick, and Uk as director understands the need for strong visuals to represent the details the snappy dialogue and slow plot developments don’t cover.
The camerawork has that big budget gloss to it while the picture framing and delicate moods gives off an arthouse aura, being plunging us back into gritty reality with the profane dialogue and uncomfortable treatment Hye-kyung occasionally endures. As mentioned before there are a number of genres meshed into this project and the blend is smooth.
Asian actors always give their all to their roles and this is no exception, the cast suitably dislikeable and easily identifiable as corrupt individuals. But the main praise goes to Jeon Do-Yeon as Hye-kyung, a woman of many layers, reflected in her outfits as much as her protean emotional state. A performance of studied nuance, this is an astute essaying of someone clinging to the dying embers of their long suppressed humanity.
Oh Seung-Uk is clearly a competent storyteller and demonstrates with this film that he can bring fresh visual presentation ideas and arthouse moods to the crime drama genre. However this is a world that relies on urgency and a deep-rooted drama of conflict and the cat and mouse game between the law and the criminals, which is needed to offset the favoured brooding, passive sexual tension.
The Shameless is a daring experiment, dipping its toes into many waters, but lacks something in its unique alchemy to be the film it aspires to be, putting it out of reach of those hoping for a regular genre film.