As a young cinephile and crime fiction fanatic there was a smorgasbord of noir-tinged goodies for a kid growing up in the Nineties to watch, rewatch, and obsessively pore over. Vice, scandal and pulp theatrics were alive and well during an era when Tarantino’s jigsaw narratives, John Dahl’s nihilistic seductresses, Scorsese’s late-era gangster sagas, and the budding humanist crime dramas of Paul Thomas Anderson were playing on the big-screen while paranoid Grand Guignol dramas like the X-Files were simultaneously playing on network television. Of course, no film embodied all the tropes and failures of the crime thriller in that decade quite like Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995).
Billed as a post-modern crime caper, the popularity of Singer’s film rode on the back of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction which was released a year earlier and also employed an atypical plot structure. Of course, what has kept the film from being forgotten is its iconic twist ending. A double whammy revealing to the police detective interrogating the film’s narrator and our guide that the entire story we were just fed was a lie, an unoriginal trope in foreign and arthouse cinema but a relatively enervating gimmick to a young cine-educated audience raised on cable television and VHS tapes. A few years later another director, M. Night Shyamalan, would utilize the twist ending as a personal signature to all his films starting with the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense (1999) and by the mid-aughts the trope became a well-worn and overused cliché.
By 2012 this tradition of incorporating the twist ending to the thriller continues with director Kim Hong-Sun’s feature film debut Traffickers (2012) which was based on a real life couple that apparently went through the same horrific journey as the fictional couple in the movie. Of course, although the “based on a true story” gimmick does lend the film a certain amount of gravitas by the time the end credits start rolling it’s obvious that neither of these tropes can help rescue this film.
For the purpose of formality the plot revolves around a ruthless group of men hired by an insidious corporation/cabal of villains who find, ensnare, and then trap unsuspecting victims onto a boat bound for China. During the overnight voyage the poor saps unlucky enough to be targeted are drugged, their organs harvested, and their bodies unceremoniously thrown overboard. The usage of organ harvesters, the cramped claustrophobic setting, and grim atmosphere are all old-hat for fans of the crime thriller but these ingredients could have easily been the fodder for another masterpiece in the thriller genre. So what exactly went wrong and kept audiences away?
Well I don’t think it was merely audience exhaustion for the thriller genre though there is something to be said for the fact that the tropes of the genre alone can’t carry an audience’s attention. And in the case of Traffickers though the actors cast do a good enough job of portraying a gang of unrepentant organ traffickers ironically this works against the film since it’s impossible to actually connect with any character. The closest thing we get to an anti-hero is Young-Gyu (Lim Chang-jung), the leader of the gang, who plays the archetypical world weary career criminal who Kim and his screenwriter Kim Sang-myun try and soften by burdening him with a guilty conscience and a schoolboy infatuation with a young travel agent, Yoo-ri (Jo Yoon-hee).
Though almost retired at the start of the film he gets pulled into doing another job and of course everything goes terribly wrong. Like all true noir protagonists Young’s past comes back to haunt him and though he might be smarter than the average criminal his conscience makes him an easy target for unscrupulous businessmen. And here is where the film crumbles through an unnecessarily complicated plot and an ending that is less twist and more illogical. Not to mention a romantic subplot that may seem to give Lim’s character some depth, but is all merely window-dressing.
The biggest flaw though is Daniel Choi’s milquetoast Sang-ho who on first appearance seems to be channeling his dopey love-struck character from Kim Hyeon-Seok’s 2010 rom-com Cyrano Agency, but in the last act of the film he is revealed to be some sort of grand puppet master. His motivations and actions while on the boat looking for his abducted wife contradicts this dramatic reveal and makes this last minute surprise a painfully translucent act, a poor attempt at giving the bad guys an aura of menace.
*END OF SPOILER*
The end of Traffickers' almost two-hour runtime leaves us with nothing but a message movie telling us to be afraid and aware of boogey men that hide in the shadows hungrily buying up people by the pound or kilo. There is a thriving market in Korean cinema for thrillers, but as for Kim Hong-Sun’s debut it suffers from an overcomplicated plot and characters that may live and breath on the page but are lifeless and dependent on contrived motivations created by the writers. Hopefully the director’s sophomore effort won’t fall into the same pitfalls.