Illang: The Wolf Brigade (Inrang)

Korea (2018) Dir. Kim Jee-woon

Having recently reviewed the classic anime film Jin-Roh: Wolf Brigade I was intrigued to learn a live action version surfaced on Netflix in 2018 but not from Japan but from Korea, and directed by the sublime Kim Jee-woon. Expect many comparisons and contrast between Illang and its anime predecessor in this review…

In 2029, pressure from other global superpowers has seen the two Koreas agree to a reunion of their countries. However, many nationalists are against this reunification and have begun rioting, the biggest troublemakers being a renegade group called The Sect. To counter The Sect, the South Korean government forms a special unit Illang “Wolf Brigade” comprised of highly skilled soldiers in bespoke armoured gear.

During  shootout in the in the sewers that wipes out most of The Sect, one Illang soldier Lim Joong-kyung (Gang Dong-won) sees a young girl fleeing the scene but hesitates to shoot her because of her age, giving her time to detonate the explosives she is carrying. Sometime later Lim is discharged from the Illang for PTSD but is asked to deliver the dead girl’s possessions to her elder sister Lee Yun-hee (Han Hyo-joo).

So far, so faithful to the source material, with the odd small alteration here and there. However, it doesn’t take long before the story veers off into a completely new direction, one which is bloated and overloaded with extraneous subplots that serve to confuse rather embellish the plot. Then again, with Illang being over thirty minutes longer than Jin-Roh this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone.

Kim Jee-woon and co-writer Jeon Cheol-hong initially do a good job of relocating the setting from an alternate 1950’s Japan to a near-future South Korea. It’s a change that makes sense given the war between the two Koreas began the 1950’s, but in ramping up the thriller aspect, they have completely betrayed the purpose of Mamoru Oshii’s original script in exploring the existentialist struggle of a traumatised soldier man questioning his sense of morality.

This leaves a huge gap in the narrative, presumably because the anime was able to run wild with the wolf metaphor – all but ignored here – and add touches of surreal, mind-bending creativity to the visual manifestation of Fuse’s hallucinations. But as it was central to Fuse’s character and at the root of his actions, omitting this means Lim is less defined as struggling with the betrayals and subterfuge he endures.

By way of compensation, if it can be see that way, Kim presents a hi-tech, explosive, and violent thriller pitting Lim against the former superiors he once trusted and the corrupt Public Security who want to throw him under the bus for an incident from five years earlier. Known as Bloody Friday, fifteen innocent schoolgirls were killed during a raid by the Illang against The Sect, which caused so much uproar that the now famous helmets were designed to hide the soldiers’ faces.

Giving the order on Bloody Friday was Han Sang-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), who has since defected to the Public Security and has been tasked with making Lim sign the confession that will absolve the others of blame. Unfortunately for Han, his former Illang superior Jang Jin-tae (Jung Woo-sung) is looking out for Lim along with other former members of Illang.

Again, not everything from Jin-Roh has been abandoned but much is compromised by changes tying in with Kim’s vision of this as a conventional thriller. For instance, we never knew until later that Kei, Yun-hee’s anime counterpart, was blackmailed into being bait for Fuse; here, it is given away almost immediately when Lim was ordered to meet the “dead girl’s sister”, when it was originally a chance meeting, followed by an internal flashback from Yu-Hee revealing all.

Yet, I must reiterate that much of these observations and gripes are based on my having seen Jin-Roh so they are bound to stand out more than for people who haven’t. Taking Illang on its own merits, Kim has made a pretty good action thriller in the typical Korean mould that will appease fans of this genre, though it can’t be deemed as one of Kim’s stronger works, thus might be seen as a disappointment given his reputation.

Issues with the plot tripping over itself through not clearly establishing the two factions after Lim won’t keep some invested while waiting for the action to arrive, which extends to Han as the nominal antagonist, his motives for wanting to crush Lim barely, if at all, shared with the audience, leaving us to see him as little more than a crazed bully with a chip on his shoulder.

Aesthetically, the reproduction of the anime’s visual motifs are very impressive and work exceptionally well, especially the Illang’s armour which are awesome, with their infra-red eyes glowing in the dark like satanic Cybermen. The shootouts are huge fun and there is some nifty hand combat fighting and gunplay thrown in for good measure to fill the void where the psychological drama was excised.

Unfortunately, Gang Dong-won and the rather fetching Han Hyo-joo are a little lacking in the charisma department and less engaging than Fuse and Kei, and leaving it to Kim Mu-yeol and his oft-comical turn as Han to bring some energy to the proceedings. Whilst nobody is actively bad, Kim usually has at least one standout performer in his films but not this time.

Take Illang: The Wolf Brigade as its own film, either with or without seeing Jin-Roh first, and you’ll be suitably entertained by a fine action thriller, whereas fans of the anime will find the changes – including the controversial end – hard to accept. Also likely to disappoint is the fact this is Kim Jee-woon at his most tepid, possibly because this is a made for Netflix film.

Let’s hope Kim’s next release sees him back where he belongs, doing his own thing, his own way, and not pandering to the almighty US dollar.