By Pierce Conran
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist"
Today's Korea, whether looking at its entertainment, fashion or culinary scenes, is a society awash with fusion. Nowhere is this more true than in its cinema, as since the late 90s Korean filmmakers have never shied away from playing with genre. Many artists and artisans would do well to take note of the above quote by Picasso (though I imagine he wasn't the first to say it) before dishing out cookie crust shrimp and potato pizzas or dumping a motley crew of genre fare into a blender and calling it a script. However, while these hybrid experiments have frequently backfired, a surprising amount have been successful, including modern classics like Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) and Jang Joon-hwan's Save the Green Planet (2003).
Following a long 15-year absence from the director's chair (though he has been active in other capacities during that time), scribe Oh Seung-uk returns with his own mashup, which has been described by its distributor as a 'hardboiled melodrama'. The Shameless is an investigative thriller, a moody noir, a brooding romance, a dark drama and an arthouse film all rolled into on. It may not be entirely successful in some areas but there's no denying that its blend of genres is seamless and sophisticated.
Det. Jung is assigned to a murder case with a clear culprit. Since the assailant is on the run, he approaches his lover Hye-kyung, a madam at a seedy room salon who has accrued a mountain of debt. Leaning on some low-level thugs, Jung goes undercover as the head of security at Hye-kung's bar, pretending to be her lover's old jailmate.
Featuring none other than Park Chan-wook as a 'creative producer', The Shameless quickly establishes its stylistic credentials with a vista on a construction site for a clump of residential towers which pans down to Det. Jung and follows him through back alleys in the cold pre-dawn light. Accompanied by Cho Young-wuk's mournful yet vibrant score, it adds up to an impressive opening scene which foreshadows the film's deliberate pacing and gloomy style.
After penning Green Fish (1997) and Christmas in August (1998), Oh Seung-uk debuted with the terrific, philosophical gangster noir Kilimanjaro (2000), which sadly never received the attention it deserves. His strength as a dialogue writer comes through clearly in The Shameless but where the film falls short is its lethargic pacing. Oh's sophomore work lacks the narrative drive to keep it from seeming aloof and his fixation on crafting a cool atmosphere ultimately undermines what is otherwise an effective portrait of malaise in a post-development but soulless Seoul.
As one would expect, Jung and Hye-kyung draw closer throughout the film but aside from that and the murderer manhunt, there isn't much more to the story. Oh puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of his leads, critical darling Jeon Do-yeon and heartthrob Kim Nam-gil, and to a lesser extent the gravely Park Sung-woong and blustery Gwak Do-won.
Already a Cannes prize winner for Secret Sunshine (2007), Jeon Do-yeon returns to the Croisette, playing another complex and desperate character. Tellingly, save for a pair of one-line parts, she is the only woman in the narrative. Hardened, yet vulnerable, she struggles to hold her own in a fiercely patriarchal environment. Her lover gambles with her money, Jung gets close to track down his target and loansharks threaten her with sexual violence. Jeon is magnetic on screen as she plays Hye-kyung as a woman of many faces: flashing big smiles for clients, eating alone with a hollow stare pouring into an empty soju glass, or melting into her lover's embrace, seeking the most fleeting of comforts in her dark world.
Receiving more screen time, but exhibiting far less nuance is Kim Nam-gil, a popular TV actor who headlined the swashbuckler The Pirates last year. He proves a very capable lead in a role that pushes him to delve deeper than he has before, yet falls short of completely owning the character. Jung's trajectory is a difficult one and might have benefited from a softer touch. Kim plays it cool throughout but no amount of moody cigarette smoking can add up to character development.
As the lover, Park Sung-woong (also at Cannes with Office), a craggy-faced beast of a man seemingly carved out of rock, nails the tone of his character. His piercing gaze, coupled with his measured physicality are enough to bring him to life, and it's no surprise that he commands two of the film's standout scenes. In an all too brief appearance, Gwak Do-won, an award-winner for The Attorney (2013), is ace as Det. Jung's repulsive colleague.
As already mentioned, the legendary Cho Young-wuk's music adds a lot to some key scenes. Reminiscent of his work with Park Chan-wook, his score ebbs and flows, pulsates and adds a sardonic touch with a hint of gypsy-style accordions. Meanwhile, Kang Kuk-hyun's cinematography pays a lot of attention to detail and remains surprisingly colorful despite the constant darkness. Also impressive is the framing and the camera's subtle movements. In one terrific closeup, a man falls down, revealing another behind him, who subsequently drops to his knees, once more uncovering a character sitting in a car further behind, as the camera pushes in.
Ultimately, it feels as though something is missing, but with another terrific performance from Jeon, some bristling dialogue and a frequently engrossing aesthetic, The Shameless is a solid follow-up from Oh.
This review also appeared on Twitchfilm.com
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