Yaksha: Ruthless Operations (Yacha)

Korea (2022) Dir. Na Hyeon

International espionage is a messy business with so many people keeping secrets and doing their best to ensure nobody else discovers them during whatever undercover mission they are on. The there are those who are double crossing their own because they are threatened are just plain greedy. Why can’t people just get along?

After failing to prosecute corrupt Lee Chan-young (Choi Won-young), President of Sangin Group, prosecutor Han Ji-hoon (Park Hae-soo) is demoted to the role of inspector at the legal support to the NIS. Under instructions of his senior Director Yeom Jeong-Won (Jin Kyung), Ji-hoon is sent to the branch in Shenyang, China to keep an eye on Black Team, a classified black ops group posing as a travel agency.

Black Team are led by Ji Kang-In (Sol Kyung-gu) aka Yaksha, notorious for his extreme and unlawful methods in achieving his objectives. The current mission involves a spy from North Korea, Moon Byung-uk (Nam Kyung-eup) looking to defect to the South but the sensitive information he holds makes him a target of different groups, including ruthless Japanese spy Yoshinobu Ozawa (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). But when Byung-uk is killed, his daughter Ju-yeong (Lee Soo-Kyung) is the next target.

One thing we can always rely on from Korean cinema is a decent, twisty crime thriller and Yaksha: Ruthless Operations is another title to be added to that rich list. It may be a little formulaic in places but that is a small concession for what is a widely mined genre, the action is explosive and hard hitting enough, and the story doesn’t stand still despite the imposing 125-minute run time.

Director Na Hyeon has just one other credit to his name, 2017’s The Prison, although the screenwriting section of his CV is a little busier, dating but 2004 but still infrequent. I suppose we can chalk this up to “quality over quantity” but having not seen The Prison that may be a tad spurious. But given the nature of this film, Na Hyeon has paid close attention to the mechanics of the genre conventions to ensure his film fits in with the myriad of predecessors.

However, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard to mislead the audience that the fundamentals of storytelling suffer from being overly convoluted, and Na Hyeon is on the verge of making this mistake. Things tie up in the end, with some threads thought forgotten revealing stealth relevance once resurfaced, a sign of a well thought out plot, but with less distractions in between, we are given fewer reasons to dissect the minutiae and come back with a raft of pertinent questions.

For instance, why does the NIS have such a dangerous squad like Black Team under its employ? They may gets results but at great cost, surely jeopardising their international reputation, even if they do operate in China. Furthermore, sending Ji-hoon out to “inspect” them might have been a clandestine way to spy on them but knowing Yaksha’s methods, this is sending the lamb to the slaughter. Did they want Ji-hoon to be killed or did they expect him to bust the group?

Given how this plays out, it might have been the former but then we wonder why the NIS didn’t just sack Ji-hoon instead? I guess we wouldn’t have a film otherwise. Part of the story is dedicated to Ji-hoon acclimatising to his violent surroundings and learning that morals and official procedure are often compromised for a reason. Ji-hoon tries to do everything by the book which Yaksha and his team ignore, preferring to shoot things and kick ass instead.

Supporting Yaksha are lone female Hee-won (Lee El), explosives guy Jae-gyu (Song Jae-rim) and computer whiz Jeong-dae (Park Jin-young), a well-oiled machine of destruction but not without a plan first. Yaksha is the name of folklore demon that eats people, but also a guardian of Buddhist faith, the double meaning quite apposite for Kang-In’s unruly ways of defending law and order. This is delineated in the opening scene when Yaksha kills one of his own team for being a mole for the Japanese.

Whilst North Korea are still regarded as the opposition, a highly optimistic plot point here is that North and South could come together once more, a notion which the Japanese feel threaten by as an Asian superpower. Unless South Korea is more afraid of China, the other Asian country besides the North hell bent on world domination, putting Japan in the antagonist role is intriguing on many levels – or maybe they still haven’t got over the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, a Japanese actor plays Ozawa and gets to speak his own language, but I doubt most audiences won’t pay attention to such detail since they want to be engrossed in the story and the action. As Black Team are a special ops group, they have plenty of hi-tech equipment at their disposal but are also handy with guns, grenades, and hand to hand combat, and are given plenty of opportunities to put them all to good use in the impressive big budget set pieces.

Explosions, gunplay, fighting and car chases will only take you so far, the story as already discussed holds up generally well, despite a few predictable outcomes near the end. It’s a handsomely shot film and ambitious in scale, bolstered by typically gung-ho performances. Sol Kyung-gu has world weary but sharp features to help embody the two sides of Yaksha’s dual moral remit, a Korean Eddie Kaplan for anyone else who saw the excellent French crime TV series Braquo.

Yaksha: Ruthless Operations is a genre film that delivers everything you want from it and does it well. The ending, along with a mid-credits coda, suggests plans for this to be a future franchise which might be stretching it yet could also be fun. Since this is a Netflix release, maybe a series could be a reality, if not, this film is good enough.

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