I finally watched this film last night – in the middle of the night, in the dark of my room. I don’t think that was necessarily wise, but if I needed to cower from the gore, at least I was under my blanket covers.
This movie is amazing. It’s ridiculous how long it’s taken me to watch it, because I think this movie should have been gobbled up as soon as it was available. The film was the hit of 2010 in Korea, and it’s no wonder as we see Won Bin‘s character spiral into madness in his race to save his only friend in the world, his young neighbor (Kim Sae Ron).
Quick summary: Won Bin is pawnshop owner Cha Tae Shik, and Kim Sae Ron is a young second-grader Jung So Mi. So Mi is mostly left alone by her dancer-drug addicted mother, and so she constantly goes to Tae Shik to sell her stuff or to hang out with him. Because Tae Shik is a loner, most people don’t have a good impression of him.
When So Mi’s mother gets involved in a drug delivery gone wrong, both she and her daughter are kidnapped, and Tae Shik is drawn into a deadly game between warring drug lords. While he chases the Seok Brothers – Man Seok (Kim Hee Won) and Jong Seok (a thrilling Kim Sung Oh) – he himself is chased by the DEA detectives. It’s a race against time when he realizes that So Mi is being used by the Seok Brothers as a drug smuggler for the gangs, and will have her organs harvested the moment she becomes useless to them.
I came to this film thinking that there wasn’t going to be much of a story – just a guy wanting to get a girl back. It’s kinda like how I approached that Liam Neeson film “Taken.” But once the story got going, it got deeper, and more twisted, and more interesting. I also thought that Won Bin’s character was going to remain unnamed, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that his character was named.
It’s not just a vengeance story, but a story of redemption, of protecting those you have the power to protect, and a story of the terrors of drug smuggling. Won Bin humanizes his character, who is a cold-blooded, former black-ops agent. He could have easily remained as a cold, aloof character, but we learn why he is such a softie inside, and why he has such a tough exterior. We understand his pain, and the reason why he does the things he does. It’s not just guilt towards her that drives him forward, but also survivor’s guilt for his past. I love watching him go through stages of fear for So Mi, of anger, of heartbreak, of absolute need to survive, and then of absolute grief.
As for Kim Sae Ron, I can now see why everyone’s fussing about her. She’s the light-hearted foil to Won Bin, and holds her own against him quite well, but also manages to turn on the waterworks convincingly when need be. She has very little screen time compared to Won Bin, and so in the few moments that she has with him, she has to convince the audience that she is someone he will care about. And I am convinced; she has this certain aura that makes you think, “Yeah Cha Tae Shik – why are you so mean to her?!” because she never sounds annoying despite being such a troublemaker.
Kim Sung Oh is also another winner. He is SUCH A SLEAZY character, which is weird to see in perspective of his timid secretary character in Secret Garden. I don’t doubt his ability to play a criminal, since he was a crazed serial killer in Sign, but he doesn’t fail to impress me at how disgusting he can be. And comedic at the same time. His character is ruthlessly murderous, but also the spoiled younger one of the two Seok Brothers, so when things don’t go his way, he would throw random tantrums.
This film does not shy away from the graphic nudity and gore from the action scenes. I had heard that the action scenes were great in this film, so every time Tae Shik had a fight, I would wait for something miraculous to happen. I have high standards mind you; a fight scene needs to be original and cinematic for me to actually say, “That’s an awesome fight scene.” The most memorable is in “Oldboy,” as Choi Min Sik fights off a gang of hoodlums and the camera follows him in a parallel manner, sliding forwards and backwards as Choi Min Sik advances or retreats. So I was mostly unimpressed in the film until we reached the final confrontation, where Tae Shik faces freelance assassin Ramrowan (Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul, who is SUCH a looker). In a knife fight, the camera changes angles and shows the fight through the eyes of either character. You get a close up on Ramrowan staring at the camera as he slices towards Tae Shik’s face, and a close up on Tae Shik as he blocks Ramrowan’s every move. It’s visually awesome because usually the audience sees the fight as a third person, an omniscient viewer who can see all the angles and all the sides. But now, we get to see the fight as if we were in it.
It’s an incredibly long movie, running nearly two hours in length. I watched this in the middle of the night, so I shivered at every slice and stab that produced copious amounts of blood. But despite how tired I was, I could not look away. I could not stop watching. I highly recommend this film if you are an action film fan, a fan of a good drama, or in love with Won Bin. I have not seen this guy act since Autumn in My Heart, and since he got out of the army, so this film just proved to me that he can really act. That he’s amazing. That he’s the Korean Matt Damon.
The ending I won’t spoil, but it’s bittersweet – and I honestly wish that it would not end.