무뢰한 (The Shameless)

A Sanai Pictures Production
Distribution: CGV Arthouse
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Noir Melodrama
Running Time: 118 Min
Shooting Time: 2014/Jun/11~2014/Sep/14 (49 Dates)
Release: 2015/May/27

WITH 전도연 (Jeon Do-Yeon) as Hye-Gyeong; 김남긴 (Kim Nam-Gil) as Jae-Gon; 박성웅 (Park Seong-Woong) as Joon-Gil; 곽도원 (Kwak Do-Won) as Gi-Beom; 김민재 (Kim Min-Jae) as Young-Gi; 강태영 (Kang Tae-Young) as Jin-Hyeong; 박지환 (Park Ji-Hwan) as Son Gyeong-Soo; 최영도 (Choi Young-Do) as Kim Ho-Gil; 하지은 (Ha Ji-Eun) as Han Ji-Yoon;  

CREW Director 오승욱 (Oh Seung-Wook) Executive Producer 한재덕 (Han Jae-Deok) Planning 박찬욱 (Park Chan-Wook) 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) | Screenplay 오승욱 (Oh Seung-Wook) | Director of Photography 강국현 (Kang Guk-Hyeon) Lighting 배일혁 (Bae Il-Hyeok) Editor 김재범 (Kim Jae-Beom) 김상범 (Kim Sang-Beom) Music 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) Art Direction 박일현 (Park Il-Hyun) 이재성 (Lee Jae-Sung) Costumes 채경화 (Chae Gyeong-Hwa) Action Choreography 허명행 (Hur Myeong-Haeng) 최봉록 (Choi Bong-Rok) | Assistant Director 이양준 (Lee Yang-Joon)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 3,255,796,431 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 413,836
BUDGET: 2,500,000,000 Won

Photo © Sanai Pictures, CGV Arthouse

SYNOPSIS

The police are staking out Park Joon-gil for the murder of Hwang Choong-nam, and jaded detective Jung Jae-gon is being pressured to close the case, particularly by his former superior Moon Ki-beom, who lost his badge for corruption. Joon-gil was once the mob enforcer for Jay Investment, but had fallen out of favor when he embezzled and stole the heart of Kim Hye-kyung, the girlfriend of the company's vice president Park Jong-ho. Jay Investment representative Min Young-ki approaches Jae-gon and offers him US$5,000 to ensure that Joon-gil is maimed during the arrest as payback. Jae-gon reluctantly agrees, but a botched arrest sends Joon-gil on the run, and Jae-gon decides the best way to find him again is by sticking with Hye-kyung, hoping she will lead him to the fugitive. Hye-kyung now works as a bar hostess to pay off her substantial debt to Jong-ho, and Jae-gon threatens his way into an undercover job as a floor manager at the nightclub she works at. Introducing himself as Joon-gil's former cellmate Lee Young-joon, Jae-gon begins to spend time with the suspicious Hye-kyung and gradually wins her trust. But when Joon-gil returns asking Hye-kyung for money for a potential deal, Jae-gon's newfound feelings of love and jealousy rise to the surface. [Wikipedia]

REVIEW

When looking at genre dynamics of the femme fatale as they relate to Korean genre cinema, you notice that there historically was little emancipation to be found – perhaps the reason why characters like Yoon In-Ja's Jung-Ae in Han Hyung-Mo's 1954 classic 운명의 손 (The Hand of Fate) or many a female protagonist from Kim Ki-Young's insane filmography still feel so fresh and avant-garde in this context. Occasional epiphany à la Lee Young-Ae in 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) aside, some will argue that Kim Hye-Soo addressed that void with her last decade's most iconic roles, particularly that of Madam Jung in 타짜 (Tazza: The High Rollers). But I always found Kim's last-minute decision to hop onto the femme fatale bandwagon to be nothing more than successful opportunism: this is someone whose early career was made of caste, fluffy romcoms on the big screen and syrupy melodramas on TV – although she did have a penchant for showing up at awards shows with rather flamboyantly revealing apparel; then suddenly one day she discovers that people like Moon So-Ri and Jeon Do-Yeon were making serious inroads with provocative roles, and a bit of “breast enhancement” and a convenient career u-turn later and she's suddenly heralded as the prototypical vamp.

Sorry, I don't buy that.

What Kim's change of heart did was addressing male fantasies about the femme fatale (and, well, her breasts), and perhaps rejuvenating her career. But it still didn't feel like the true potential of this archetype was being fulfilled. When I think of unlikely femmes fatales of recent memory, though, few left as much of a lasting impact as Jeon Do-Yeon's turn in Jung Ji-Woo's sexually-charged, Hitchcockian 해피엔드 (Happy End). Similar career trajectory as Kim notwithstanding, Jeon managed to (literally and figuratively) strip off the limitations of the K-drama (and mainstream Korean film) heroine of the time, going where few A-list stars had ever dared to venture. It wasn't with a male fantasy, an over-the-top, manipulative stereotype who threw manufactured charisma and sex appeal in the viewers' face à la Madam Jung that she did that. It was graceful, classy; in some ways tragic and decadent, but most definitely feminine. That's the keyword. Feminine.

A little over fifteen years later, and we find Chungmuro's most talented chameleon going at it again.

Oh Seung-Wook has been quite the arthouse journeyman over the years, spending his formative years under masters like Park Gwang-Soo and Lee Chang-Dong, and then debuting with the little-seen, interesting but under-developed nihilistic trip 킬리만자로 (Kilimanjaro). Curiously, this is the same pen who wrote the script for Hur Jin-Ho's 8월의 크리스마스 (Christmas in August) – a chillout, Ozu-like send-off of the classical Korean potboiler – so you could argue that he knows a thing or two about the business of melodrama, particularly when it comes to taking trite and conventional premises and doing something special with them. This transpires in the subject he chose, something straight out of a 1970s hostess film: homicide detective goes after murder suspect by doing what? Approaching his lover, who predictably works at a “10%” (Gangnam's posh night clubs, with additional female companionship included in the package). Of course she makes him fall in love, and the “dangerous vamp” leaves a trail of decadence and just plain bad luck after her.

Ho-hum. Deja vu, right?

It's how Oh handles that “of course” that at times makes this film tremendously charming. He doesn't waste much time trying to convince us about Hye-Gyeong's allure. He and Jeon show it to us. There are no fortuitous meetings, unnecessary exposition, meandering narrative coincidences and anything you'd expect from this canon. It's all about ambiance, subtle interplay, the way mood can alter the perception of your surroundings. It all happens in a charmingly indirect way – for instance, by having Jae-Gon slowly get to know her through her moments of intimacy with Joon-Gil, as the detective eavesdrops on them through their wiretapped apartment. A hearty laugh, her passionate breathing during sex, the occasional moments they spend when he has to begin approaching her; it all builds up to an inevitable sense of endearment, although Jae-Gon (as Hye-Gyeong does) is painfully aware of where and when this is going to end. Their meetings have an air of tragic but humble decadence surrounding them, the kind of ambiance that even the best Korean noir have a hard time replicating. It's all about implied chemistry and moments of bleak but very vivid emotion. There is nothing explicit on the surface, thrown at the viewer as if begging for attention.

Jeon is mesmerizing here. After Lee Chang-Dong's 밀양 (Secret Sunshine), I had the sneaking suspicion that she wanted a breather from meaty roles – although Im Sang-Soo's 하녀 (The Housemaid) did offer interesting elements. Too many safe roles in even safer films, even when it meant starring in something deliciously snarky like Lee Yoon-Gi's 멋진 하루 (My Dear Enemy). But Hye-Gyeong gives us the Jeon Do-Yeon of yore back, the one who breathes fire into the frame like few others can in this neck of the woods, or have ever been able to. It's amazing how much depth she is able to imbue in a character that narratively speaking is so barebones – since Oh banks so much of the film on ambiance. She's part tough-as-nails temptress and part disillusioned sleeping beauty drowning her lost innocence in rivers of alcohol and sex. She's rarely been this vividly decadent, almost never been this explosively feminine. It's a beauty to witness.

But Oh has assembled quite the fine cast around her: Kim Nam-Gil has pretty evident limitations, but when kept in check he can be a very effective thespian, as his Jae-Gon epitomizes here. Had Oh let him loose he probably would have turned this role into a frame-capturing homme fatale (which would have killed the film), but as it is he aptly supports Jeon in creating a believable aura of affinity. It's through their interplay that the building attraction between Hye-Gyeong and Jae-Gon gains resonance, not through narrative exposition – which is why this film's ambiance is so successful. Park Seong-Woong, a charismatic character actor who's been a little too typecasting-prone to truly make a mark, handles his end of the bargain just fine – as does Kwak Do-Won, in a predictably efficient bit role.

It's not the kind of film you seek if you're looking for the usual melodrama archetypes and narrative Korean cinema and the TV drama canon have gotten us used to; it's more for the noir aficionado in the pursuit of spontaneous, realistic decadence created by real emotions of the moment and not narrative constructs. In those terms, and thanks to a fabulous central performance, it works quite well – at times incredibly so. It will not please those seeking an exhaustive backstory or characterization so expository as to spell everything out before the actors can get a motion in.

But sometimes genre can be that… not being afraid of delving into genre trappings even if it might turn off a share of viewers. And without feeling any shame about it.

ACTING GRADES

90 전도연 (Jeon Do-Yeon)
78 김남길 (Kim Nam-Gil)
75 박성웅 (Park Seong-Woong)
73 곽도원 (Kwak Do-Won)
70 김민재 (Kim Min-Jae)

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