Friday, December 9, 2011

Jopok Week: Born to Kill (본투킬, Bon tu kkil) 1996

By Kieran Tully

I must admit, I probably approached Born to Kill (1996) in the wrong manner, one in which I thought it would be a good companion piece to Beat (1997) given their similarities.  After all, both films star Jung Woo-sung as an unstoppable fighting machine; are about gangsters; feature a leading love interest; are from the late 80’s and possess the style, music, and colour associated with the 80’s; and have titles beginning with the letter B.  At the end of the day, that is all they share in common.  Maybe it wasn’t fair to come in expecting something similar in quality to Beat.  Ultimately, Born to Kill is not as good a film and on a week celebrating Jopok, I recommend you stick to something else.

The film is about a professional killer (named Kil, which did get a laugh out of me when referring to its Korean meaning) who seems to be totally detached from society.  The only connection he makes with others is with the end of his silver dagger or the sole of his boot.  We soon learn the back-story of Kil (played by Jung Woo-sung) and come to understand he was an orphan, once raised by a crime lord.  Somehow he got out of this environment and is now taking hits for money.  Guess who is next?  The kingpin who raised him.  It is a dilemma that tries to give the film some kind of backstory but ultimately it falls flat.  There is a lot of gang rivalry, with double cross after double cross, and Kil always ends up being caught in the middle of them.  The most interesting Jopok aspect of the film is Kil’s sole use of a large Bowie knife rather than guns, bats, or 2x4’s.  This leads to 3 things: lots and lots of stabbings, some intense eye-gouging scenes, and an important role in understanding who he is and how he became Kil.

Naturally, Kil soon crosses paths with the gorgeous bargirl Soo-Ah (Shim Eun-ha) and eventually falls in love with her.  It’s a story we’ve seen before, even in 1996.  So, what’s new?  Kil has never been with a girl, doesn’t drink, or even socialise except for with his pet monkey Chi-Chi. Luckily.  Soo-Ah is brazen enough to intrude into his life and literally forces herself into his apartment, his bed, and soon, his heart.  Without much effort, she inspires him to break free from his self-imposed shell, that is until she finds out what he does to put all that cash in the fridge.  This leads to some complications, sacrificial beatings, and even a water-launched attack scene at a fishing village that Kim Ki-duk surely made an homage to in The Isle (2000).

Summing up the plot has already become tiresome as it’s fairly generic.   I was surprised at how little happens in the film, as Kil constantly stares off in silence.  However, the film genuinely picks up pace every-time Shim Eun-ha is on screen, and while it’s not her most accomplished performance, her talent is clearly evident.  For an actress with such a small filmography, any fan of hers must seek out this film, even if the subtitles are well below par.  Speaking of which, the picture quality of what seems like the only available copy is quite poor, as the colours look slightly off and there are frequent imperfections in the picture.   The biggest mistake in the film was the decision not to allow Shim Eun-ha more singing time on-screen.  A smile came across my face whenever she did appear, so I must give her credit for that.

The film lacks drama, which is something Beat never had a problem with.  Maybe it was the addition of a 3rd main character that stopped this from moving forward at a faster pace, or in any direction.   The action has some nice set pieces, with a reasonable last stand in a night club (mind you, there was no flying kick or glass shattering throw we haven’t seen before).  Jeong Doo-hong is involved as he is with nearly every Korean gangster film, but fights disappoint.  Jung Woo-sung himself improved greatly in just a year for his star role in Beat, both in terms of acting and martial arts performance.  The two leads are relatively well rounded, but the middle segment of the film where this is developed doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie.  Its major downfall is that it doesn’t go far enough to establish the ‘multimoods’ Korean film has become famous for.   It’s just a short romantic tale in the midst of a gang war, and while it was my favourite part, it simply belongs in another film.

The film is written by a combination of Song Hae-seong (Director of Failan, 2001; A Better Tomorrow, 2010), Lee Moo-yeong (Writer of Joint Security Area, 2000; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002), and Director Jang Hyeon-soo, who began his career as a screenwriter on genre pics, often involving gangster storylines, including the acclaimed film noir Rules of the Game (1994), with Kang Je-kyu and Park Joong-hoon.  Since then most of his entries have been romantic tales, including his latest offering, the romantic sex-comedy Everybody Has Secrets (2004).  Unfortunately their individual talents don’t quite feature here.  The middle segment did work quite well, but the problem is the weak gangster bookends that encapsulate it, with fairly average action scenes and a convoluted story.   Given this is Jopok week, I feel bad focussing on the negatives of those parts, but simply put there are many more entertaining and creatively made Korean gangster films out there.  Some elements of religion are added for depth, and Soo-Ah’s slimey agent could have been explored further. 

The film was edited by the notorious Park Gok-ji, who along with being the wife of Park Heung-sik, has edited classic gangster films such as The General's Son 2 (1991), The General's Son 3 (1992), No. 3 (1997), My Wife Is a Gangster (2001), A Better Tomorrow, and to an award winning extent on A Dirty Carnival (2006).  What I found even more interesting was when I discovered she had edited just as many successful romantic classics, such as Seopyeonje (1993), The Gingko Bed (1996), The Contact (1997), Lies (2000), and Failan.   Utilising both genre approaches here, she does an OK job, but slow motion is heavily over-used and strange sound effects are littered over a synthetic soundtrack.   I know at the time it was common to slow down and stylise entire fight scenes, such as the opening scene in Nowhere to Hide (1999) or the closing to Beat, which both worked great, it’s just unenthusiastic in Born to Kill.  But hey, for a year where Gok-ji edited The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well and Crocodile, I will give her the benefit of the doubt. 

Born to Kill was the 8th highest grossing Korean film of 1996, not too bad considering a week after it opened, the mammoth beast of Two Cops 2 launched, a film that would go on to take the number 1 position for the year, reeling in 6 times the box office earnings of Born to Kill (Figures refer to Seoul admissions, courtesy of  There were definitely better things to come for Korean film and specifically Korean gangster films.  Noticeably, production values picked up from the late 90’s, and stories became larger and more interesting as they encompassed all aspects of gangsterhood.   The ‘New Korean Wave’ was often mislabeled as ‘New Hong Kong’ cinema when it emerged, but if that label does indeed apply to some Korean films, Born to Kill is probably one of them – given its style and content (though quite poor).  Go watch Beat instead as it’s great fun, but if you are looking for a darker, less emotional ride or are a fan of Shim Eun-ha, check out Born to Kill.

Kieran is Marketing and Festivals Manager of the Korean Cultural Office in Sydney, where he coordinates a weekly film night (Cinema on the Park) and the Korean Film Festival (KOFFIA).  He is currently completing a Masters of Arts on Asian Film in Australia, has worked at more than 15 film festivals across Sydney, and writes about film on the blog Tully’s Recall.

See Also:

Beat (1997)
Green Fish (1997)

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