Saturday, June 09, 2018

Believer

I missed the first night of Noir CIty: Boston last night (baseball!), so I'm joking that I made up for it with a little extra crime this morning. It unfortunately isn't quite so great in either direction as the first proper double feature of the day (the fine Murder, My Sweet and the bonkers Strangers in the Night), but it was pretty decent and drew a not-bad crowd for a morning matinee on a beautiful weekend. Hopefully enough of one that AMC will step up the Korean releases in the future, as they've generally been more willing to skip a Korean movie that crosses the Pacific than a Chinese one.

I do have to kind of laugh at the end of this one, though, especially considering how I've treated the epilogue of the film it's based upon, Johnnie To's Drug War, as something of a regular punchline:

SPOILERS!

It's a rule in Mainland Chinese crime films that Crime Does Not Pay, so anybody who commits those crime must face punishment at the end, and Drug War ends with Louis Koo literally being brought into the execution chamber to die by lethal injection, screaming that he knows more and they can make a deal while the one cop who survived the final shootout watches in righteous judgment. It's not entirely tacked-on - the man's fear of the death penalty is what motivated him for much of the movie - but it's a rapid return to law-and-order after an entire movie of fast-moving, improvised chaos. It feels like the sort of script note the Chinese Censor Board would give, and also the sort of exaggerated compliance that mocks it.

This one has the equivalent character escape, only to be tracked down in Norway by the detective. They meet, sit down to talk, and then a drone camera zooms out from the snowy compound, the only noise one gunshot. It's the exact opposite, but in its own way kind of ridiculous, one last bit of gratuitous ambiguity as the cherry on top of a movie that tried to be about people not being what they seem but didn't have anything new to say about it. It feels like imitating a clever thing, especially director Lee Hae-young hasn't really done much to convince us that the cop is anything but focused and the crook anything but ruthless.

/SRELIOPS

So, I may joke about how didactic Drug War is, but I also respect it a bit more - To knows what he's making and delivers the best damn genre movie he can, with interesting commentary and characterization to be dug up on close examination, while Lee seemingly tries to elevate the crime story but doesn't come up with something nearly as clever or thrilling.

Believer

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

A fair number of people, this guy included, spent a fair amount of time and words a few years back talking about how Johnnie To's Drug War was different from (and, arguably, less than) his Hong Kong crime movies because of the involvement of the Chinese censor board; watching Believer, the new South Korean remake, suggests that maybe it deserved a little more credit for being a heck of a crime movie. This new version has a lot of the same beats and handles some well enough, but Lee Hae-yeong is no match for To.

The story opens with an obsessed cop, Jo Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong), recruiting Cha Soo-jung (Keum Sae-rok), a teenage junkie who has helped him before, to help chase down a lead on the mysterious drug lord known only as "Mister Lee". What she finds doesn't seem to match with anything, but they are soon gifted something much more solid: Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryung) arrives late for a meeting of Lee's lieutenants and thus escapes one of his regular purges-by-bomb. Also surviving is Seo Yeong-rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), who lived in that greenhouse turned meth lab, and he presents another opportunity, as he was not expected to be there and thus it would not be unusual for the frequent go-between to keep his appointment to escort Park Sun-chang (Park Hae-joon) to a meeting with Chinese supplier Jin Ha-rim (Kim Joo-hyuk) - and by having "Rak" tell Park that the meeting was delayed, Won-ho can impersonate both parties in turn.

As with the original, that sequence is the centerpiece of this movie, and it's arguably the reason you officially remake Drug War rather than just use the generic bones of it to create something similar: Lots of gang movies feature a cop trying to infiltrate the mob this way, but the immediate turnaround where the filmmakers present the same scene a second time, just with the roles recast, is an audacious move, a test of both Lee Hae-yeong's skill as a director and Cho Jin-woong's as an actor. As the cops execute the mechanics of a heist movie in the background, Lee finds ways to make the seemingly easier second time through more tense than the first, while Cho does impressive work showing us the driven cop trying to portray two different monsters. Explicitly showing your cast acting is a dangerous game; expecting them to do show that fake persona on top of the "real" thing twice in a row without stumbling is pushing it.

Full review on EFC

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