Midnight Runners (Cheong-nyeon-gyeong-chal)
Korea (2017) Dir. Kim Ju-hwan
It was 35 years ago the first Police Academy film arrived, and recently there was talk of a reboot, though concerns were how it would fare in today’s politically correct climate. With this idea still in limbo, Korean cinema suggests how it might work with Midnight Runners, though the story is far darker and socially conscious instead of bawdy silliness. Perhaps the Police Academy comparisons null and void but the DNA is definitely there.
The Korean National Police University is taking its latest batch of new candidates, among them Park Ki-joon (Park Seo-joon) and Kang Hae-yeol (Kang Ha-neul). At first they don’t get along but the final task of the training camp is a torturous timed mountain run, during which Hae-yeol twists his ankle. Ki-joon carries him for the rest of the run, and despite arriving last they pass as they showed team spirit.
Celebrating Christmas two years later, the duo hit the nightclubs to meet girls only to strike out. About to head home they see a girl being abducted and report it to the police, but they are either not taken seriously or other cases taken precedent because of official procedure. So, Ki-joon and Hae-yeol decide to the put their training to use and set about finding the van and the girl on their own.
Part silly comedy, part gruesome thriller in the mould we’ve come to expect from Korea, Midnight Runners is the third feature from Kim Ju-hwan, aka Jason Kim, putting the pettiness of procedure under the spotlight instead of police corruption. Kim posits the idea that rules might be there to ensure a smooth running and fewer mistakes but initiative and action should be allowed to overrule them if the situation demands it.
Kim doesn’t go overboard with heavy rhetoric or melodramatic passages to present his case – if anything, his tone is rather calm but still palpably cynical, the criminal activities the two cadets uncover is sufficient in illustrating the point on its own. There is no ire to be raised here; instead this reads more of a tribute to those officers who do challenge convention in doing their job.
For the first thirty-plus minutes, we meet the two gawky cadets – bespectacled Hae-yeol is keen to become a police officer and not follow his father as a butcher, Ki-joon is only there as the education is free and his single mother is poor. Distinctly free of nubile young women for them to lust after – the only female present is the fearsome instructor known affectionately as Medusa (Park Ha-Sun) – the comedy is broadly set around the initially frosty relationship between the two leads until the fateful mountain run.
They actually make an endearing pair, even if they are typical tropes of the logical one and the capricious one, working well together in getting laughs or kicking butt. Having failed to pull at the nightclub – being police cadets apparently isn’t as enticing as being real officers – both see pretty Yoon-jung (Lee Ho-Jung) as their last attempt at scoring and compete in rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to ask her out.
Meanwhile in the background, a van pulls out from the shadows and slowly follows Yoon-jung, then a man leaps out, knocks her unconscious with a baton and her body is stuffed into the van. This is mostly shot as part of the backdrop of the bickering friends and makes for a chilling tableau, though the close up of the actual attack ruins the pathos of the moment.
Having failed to get support from the local police station, the duo decides to act on their own, recalling the lesson that the first seven hours of abduction are the most critical for women. In this case, critical is an understatement – as they finally discover Yoon-jung is the latest victim of a gang of traffickers who groom teenage runaways to be injected with a drug that boosts fertility and the eggs are forcibly removed and sold to childless couples.
Such a tonal shift might sound difficult to pull off but Kim is able to make this transition rather smooth since the brutality of the training regime wasn’t always played for laughs, thus the serious side of the film has already been established. This doesn’t mean the humour ends abruptly, Kim still throws in some sly laughs even as things get violent, though the plot beats surrounding them are hardly original.
Despite some hard hitting fights, involving and bare fists or the judo as learned at the academy, the violence is rather tame compared to most Korean action thrillers and as an adjunct to that, the women aren’t sexually exploited either – dolled up as eye candy in the club scenes certainly, but the kidnap victims aren’t gratuitously stripped naked or graphically abused either.
Obviously, the central theme of whether the rules need flexibility is crystallised in the final act where our heroes face expulsion from the academy for defying orders and going it alone. It is interesting the lone supporter of the lads at the disciplinary hearing is a female, whilst the smarmy old men want them boiled in oil, yet it is training officer Yang (Sung Dong-Il), who reminds the panel they once were young and had such enthusiasm they regularly defied orders to bring criminals to justice, to put things into perspective.
In his first leading role, Park Seo-joon proves himself very capable of carrying a film as Ki-joon, displaying great adeptness in the comedic, dramatic, and physical aspects of the role. Kang Ha-neul is already a headliner, playing legendary Korean poet Yun Dong-Ju in one film, but never seeks to usurp his co-star as Hae-yeol, sharing everything with him just like his character does.
Midnight Runners is unapologetically a mainstream genre film but a highly entertaining and ultimately satisfying one with a message it doesn’t shout about, this restrained approach making the points loud and clear. Police Academy reboot? Who needs it now?