Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Busan 2015 Review: VETERAN, Who's Gonna Protect Gotham When Bruce Wayne Grew Up to Be an Evil Super-Rich Punk?

Part of MKC's coverage of the 20th Busan International Film Festival.

By Kyu Hyun Kim, Associate Professor at UC Davis and contributor.

Seo Do-chul (Hwang Jeong-min), a veteran of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, busts a ring of foreign car smugglers with his teammates, the muscle-bound Detective Wang (Oh Dae-hwan), ass-kicking Miss Bong (Jang Yoon-joo) and the cute rookie Detective Yoon (Kim Si-hoo), under the leadership of the perennially frustrated but bizarrely eloquent Chief Oh (Oh Dal-soo).  Do-chul, a pit bull of a cop, in the process of investigating the smugglers, befriends a trucker, Mr. Bae (Jeong Woong-in). Later, he is invited to a private party as a "consultant" to a hit TV series and witnesses the sponsor corporation's young heir Jo Tae-oh (teen heartthrob Yoo Ah-in) behaving cruelly to one of the partygoers. When Mr. Bae is found to be unconscious and critically wounded from an alleged suicide attempt, after directly confronting Tae-oh's corporation about his unfair firing, the cop smells a rat and starts an investigation, despite pressure from the higher-ups to look the other way. 

As of September 25, 2015, Veteran remains the biggest box office South Korean hit of the year, with 12.8 million tickets sold, ahead of Assassination and Ode to My Father, both slickly calculated blockbusters designed to inculcate anti-Japanese nationalism and unquestioning nostalgia for the Park Chung-hee decades, respectively, to the max. Its megahit status is a long-time-coming validation of sorts for director Ryoo Seung-wan, a younger-generation maverick who had consistently come up with interesting and occasionally unique and challenging films since his astonishing debut with Die Bad, fifteen years ago.  Ryoo is often typecast as a director of cleverly humorous potboilers full of knowing references to certain cinematic heritages familiar to postwar Korean viewers (nativist "two-fisted heroes" action cinema of '60s, pan-Asian martial arts films of '70s and the "Hong Kong noir" of the '80s).  Perhaps for that reason, critics and commentators have often overlooked his fascinating output in favor of more the consciously auteurist, intellectually or stylistically flamboyant films of Im Sang-soo or Kim Ki-duk. I have elsewhere posited the view that the transition from "sentimental gangster films" to hybrid, urban film noir in Ryoo's filmography shows an intriguing parallel with that between prewar American crime films (think James Cagney in The Public Enemy [1931] and Paul Muni in Scarface [1932]) and the wartime and post-World War 2 film noir, marked by paranoia, technological surveillance and existentialist gloom (think, again, James Cagney in White Heat [1949]).

There is no question that Veteran is designed to broadly appeal to the boiling resentment felt by the middle- and lower-class Korean viewers toward the top one per-cent of "haves," represented in the film by a disgustingly self-important chaebol (mega-conglomerate) family.  Unlike his previous two films, The Unjust, a variant on the theme of a hypocritical justice system as a synecdoche for the post-industrial world, most memorably explored in Orson Wells's Touch of Evil [1958], and The Berlin File, a striking throwback to the trans-ideological, '70s mode Cold War espionage thriller, Ryoo deliberately injects self-reflexive humor into the proceedings whenever needed,  rendering the grunt cops cute and charming, regardless of the amount of violence they wield against criminals (and, frankly, at each other). Yet, he also keeps the narrative drive so tightly under control, that neither the Jacky Chan-like acrobatic action choreography he is so enamored of, nor the self-conscious pontification of the protagonists against the evils of the Korean society, has any chance to clog it up and slow things down.  

Ryoo's style here is an often exhilarating combination of the familiar-yet-refreshing Expressionism based on genre idioms and the stark, economical, almost minimalist filmmaking of the old days-- think of Martin Scorsese channeling the spirit of Samuel Fuller. Moreover, Ryoo seems to have tamed the devil in the details in a way reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho: Mr. Bae's fall from the staircase, a striking stunt that makes most viewers flinch involuntarily, is repeated in different contexts three times, and each presentation is different: DP Choi Young-hwan and Production Designer Jo Hwa-sung collaborate to beautifully capture the bustling panoramic view of the metropolitan Seoul that runs the gamut from the surrealistically ugly vistas of crumbling slum towns to the glittering nighttime street-scape of Myeongdong.  

Such attention to detail is likewise extended to careful calibration of the performances.  The main villains of the piece, Yoo Ah-in as a young heir to the chaebol clan in question, and Yoo Hae-jin as his "caretaker," are fascinatingly nuanced portrayals.  Tae-oh is not simply a psychotic bad apple: Yoo, under the guidance of the director, portrays him as a crooked bonsai tree of a man, stewing with frustrations of his own, almost but not quite sympathetic. Their relationship is like Bruce Wayne and Alfred gone horribly wrong, as if young Bruce turned out to have more aptitude for super-villainy than vigilante heroics. More remarkably, Hwang Jeong-min's foul-mouthed cop also subtly changes over time, from a macho dickhead with an almost primitive sense of justice, to a professional lawman whose devotion to his job begins to outweigh his (class-based) righteous rage. His loud, comically earnest pronouncement of the Korean version of Miranda rights, "You HAVE a right to hire an attorney…", while handcuffed to the totally frustrated Tae-oh, is uproariously funny but also perhaps a bit moving too (and this is where Veteran, sassy and clever as it is, ultimately departs from Lee Myung-se's Nowhere to Hide [1999], one of the current film's models). Indeed, you expect the thrilling climax in which Do-chul's team crashes Tae-oh's abode to end in a Dirty Harry-like right-wing explosion of violence, but Ryoo surprises you by refusing to endorse such an easy solution, and cleverly incorporating smartphone-clicking passersby-- in other words, viewers themselves-- into the sequence.  

In his refusal to succumb to a "cool," nihilistic worldview or the "system always wins" pessimism, Ryoo finally seems to have found the right middle-ground to which the multitude of Korean viewers could find themselves engaged with the film's narrative as well as its political stance. But there is no obligation for you, a viewer, to identify with Do-chul's viewpoint. You can have a laugh at the pig-headed cop's expense, too: why not?  Regardless of how you respond to the politics of this film, there is more joy evident here, in the sheer filmmaking, in the needle fitting the grooves of the storytelling, than in any other contemporary Korean action film of the last two years. And that is the foremost reason why you will enjoy Veteran.   

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