Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Defection Double Feature: Escape and Hijack 1971

I feel like AMC works hard to not have this situation come up most of the time, but when distributors toss out two Korean thrilled with similar plots on the same day, there's probably not enough demand to give them each a screen of their own. So they share a screen, alternating showtimes, and that lets me do this:
This, by the way, if what I'm going to be doing a lot of in a couple of weeks, hopefully: Going to one movie at Fantasia, enjoying it from my preferred close-to-the-front-and-center seat, and then walking to the lobby, joining the passholder line, and settling back into the same seat. That it's entirely possible that both movies in Montreal will be Korean makes it even more like practice for the festival.

Talju (Escape '24)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2024 in AMC Causeway Street #2 (first-run, laser DCP)

Escape manages the nifty trick of feeling fairly no-nonsense despite a couple of twists, the sort that could otherwise make a lean feature feel like it has been padded to get over 90 minutes. Writer/director Lee Jong-pil establishes a plan, throws wrenches into it, and circles back in a satisfying way.

He presents the plan right away, as North Korean border patrol agent Lim Gyu-nam (Lee Je-hoon) waits until the others in the barracks are asleep, rushes across the room, climbs through a duct, and then sprints for the spot where he's burrowed under the fence and follows the map he's made of a clear path through the minefield to its end, where he starts carefully feeling out the ground in front of him so that he can extend it. He should be able to flee in four days, but fellow NCO Dong-hyuk (Hong Xa-bin) throws a pair of wrenches into it: First, but noting that low-flying birds indicate it will probably rain heavily in the next couple of days, likely making things muddy enough that the mines will drift into new positions, and by saying he has seen Gyu-nam's activity and wants to come along, to reunite with his mother and sister in the south. This naturally causes things to go sideways, but Gyu-man may have another chance - the State Security Agent sent to investigate, Li Hyun-sang (Koo Kyo-hwan), is a childhood acquaintance, and notes that it certainly looks like Gyu-nam was trying to capture Dong-hyuk. It seems pretty clear, though, that Hyun-sang is more interested in having Gyu-nam under his thumb than helping an old friend.

In a lot of thrillers, this might be a time for a lull, or a reset as the filmmakers send the film off in a different direction, albeit one that will inevitably draw on something Gyu-nam learned early on, but Lee is not looking to do "one year later" here: Gyu-man has maybe not spent his whole ten years in the force on this plan, but it has been enough time that it would be difficult to let go, and there's too much energy here, whether in Gyu-man's urgency, Dong-hyuk's desperation, or Hyun-sang's sadism, that there's not a whole lot to gain by dissipating it off-screen, even if Koo Kyo-hwan (as Hyun-sang) is the only one who is really chewing scenery. Lee slows down just enough to make the film breaking into a run again so quickly almost confusing - my brain had started to shift back into "gather information" mode - but it's exciting when one realizes just what he's doing.

It's not entirely man-on-a-mission linear, though, having time to ruminate about how nastily top-down a place like North Korea can be, but also realizing that's background noise for its people as opposed to something to ruminate on. The characters know this, it's probably well known in the South, and honestly most folks know that this is how it works, no matter how rigid a place's stated principles are. There's just enough time to find something tragic but not forgivable about how this makes some people mean, especially Hyun-sang, who is fascinating because one must be almost willfully ignorant to miss that he's gay. Does he feel that being constantly on offense is the only way to keep people from coming for him, or want more than military loyalty from Gyu-nam? It doesn't matter; the combination of ambition and fear has made him a monster. The film is also darkly comic as it plays with the irony of how sometimes the best weapon against authoritarians is their own fear of getting in trouble.

With all that, it moves quickly; the filmmakers build the various escape plans smartly, the sort of things that can either be done on the run either in terms of being improvised or with the knowledge that people may be shooting at you, rather than trying to impress the audience with plans where a million things out of Gyu-man's control could go wrong. The action does, admittedly, feature an awful lot of near misses with guns on full auto and one very fortuitous encounter with some guest stars, but these sequences flow well, both individually and in getting from one to the other, and flow is what this sort of movie thrives on.

Indeed, when one considers that the South Korean action movies that cross the Pacific often give a writer/director enough rope to be self-indulgent that the end result can make one fidget (even this 94-minute film draws things out a bit at the end), Escape is refreshingly efficient, at times so much so that one wonders if one missed a step. It passes, though, and the lasting impression is something that knows the plan and gets it done.

Hijack 1971

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 July 2024 in AMC Causeway Street #2 (first-run, laser DCP)

It's kind of fascinating that movies set on trains are often more exciting than expected but ones set on planes are maybe a notch below what they should be, especially when you consider ohw many people are afraid of riding a train as opposed to flying. It's like the all or nothing nature of disaster in the air boxes the filmmakers in, even more than being based on an actual event. Hijack 1971, for instance, chugs along, never actually getting close to dull, but you know the big fireworks and reprise of the moral dilemma in the prologue isn't coming until the very end.

That prologue, set in 1969, as South Korean Air Force pilots Tae-In (Ha Jung-woo) and Dong-cheol (Kim Dong-wook) diverted from training to track a passenger plane flying to the North. Tae-in recognizes the pilot as his former wingman Min-su (Choi Kwang-il) and, believing the plane to be hijacked, refuses to disable it by shooting out an engine, feeling it an unacceptable risk to the passengers on board. He is dismissed from the service even before Min-su is not repatriated - North Korea needs pilots, even if they don't want to be there, and offers a bounty on hijacked planes. So come 23 January 1971, Tae-in is flying commercial, though his decision has him still a co-pilot rather than a captain, when Kim Young-dae (Yeo Jin-goo) boards his plane with a carryon full of explosives, quickly injuring captain Gyu-sik (Sung Dong-il) and air marshall Chang-bae (Moon You-kang), leaving Tae-in and flight attendant Ok-soon (Chae Soo-bin) to figure out how to keep the passengers safe and in their homeland.

This general description probably holds for a lot of hijacking stories, from the dawn of aviation to the twenty-first century, because how else is it going to go? So the devil's in the details, and the good news is that the core cast here is strong: As the former fighter pilot in the copilot seat, Ha Jung-woo brings steady movie-star charisma tempered more by humility than self-doubt, a sense that he doesn't exactly know what to do next but has what it takes to think it through. He's a good match for Sung Dong-il as the captain, who is cut from the same cloth and manages to make their trust and teamwork work even though friction might be the more easily thrilling narrative. Chase Soo-bin is a nice anchor as the flight attendant who proves calmer under pressure than she maybe expected. Generally, the supporting cast does the "passengers with just enough backstory to make them individual" thing well.

It could maybe so with a better antagonist, Yeo Jin-goo is in a sort of no-man's land between delusional zealotry and sweaty panic for much of the film, even with a fair amount of attention paid to his backstory. His motivation is one of the more intriguing underlying themes of the film, and complements what's going on with Tae-in well: Both are where they are because absolutely anyone with some connection to the North, even relatives of those kidnapped and returned, are treated as if they were spies by default. I'm curious to what extent this is still a contemporary thing in South Korea or a relic of the past. There's not a lot of chance for Tae-in to show empathy, or draw on that common thread, or even for the characters to reflect on it after a finale where he could be seen as attempting to prove his loyalty at all costs.

It's also kind of fascinating to watch a movie in this genre where the setting and present day are on opposite sides of 9/11, because the first act hits you with nostalgia for how air travel used to be awesome and exciting but also, in retrospect, insanely reckless. The film is actually quite good when it focuses on the flying, too, since these movies often have the plane as an island in a featureless sky. The previz credits include a "virtual pilot", so there's clearly been some attention paid to things being plausible if extremely unlikely along with some creativity about how it all plays out, and the effects work is solid.

Hijack 1971 winds up being a tight-enough thriller that it's an entertaining evening or matinee at the movies. There are bits where a viewer might want more or something a bit more unexpected, but no so that it keeps the film from getting the job done.

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