Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: REAL Makes Korean Noir Gloriously Camp, Weird and Amazing

By Pierce Conran

In the same week that a new release was embraced by the media (Bong Joon-ho's Okja), another was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. So strong was the vitriol for Real, a vehicle for Asian superstar heartthrob Kim Soo-hyun (Secretly Greatly), that lambasting it on social media quickly turned into a sport.

Scatological references aside, the gist is that this is one of, if not 'the', worst Korean films of all time. Stepping outside of your comfort zone can be a scary thing but this new action-noir (a label that couldn't begin to do it justice) has forced viewers into a completely alien cinematic experience, awash with reds, purples and strange masks, which most simply weren't prepared for.

In a fictionalized Seoul teeming with crime, Tae-young is a skillful and ruthless problem solver who has built a flashy casino. Sessions with a psychiatrist steer him on to a mysterious path, where he goes head-to-head against a masked journalist who may be his doppelgänger and a crime boss who wants a cut of his gambling business. At least, that's what I think happens.

Frankly, much of the raging criticism that Real has received has some justification. The film is terribly long, wildly sexist and almost incomprehensible, yet when the lights came on, rather than angry I felt exhilarated. Whether the result of careful calculation or sheer folly, this is one of the most singular Korean films to emerge in years. Over 137 minutes, the story is broken into three chapters: the intriguing 'Birth', the confounding 'VS.', and the utterly bananas 'Real', when the tenuous threads of logic are ripped off once-and-for-all for a thrilling and camp finale.

Mostly taking place in large spaces with sparse decoration (and even fewer characters), Real is cobbled together with slick images that at times have the same disembodied feel of a music video or commercial. Strikingly composed wide shots coexist with an army of closeups of Kim Soo-hyun, as every inch of his face and body is relentlessly pored over. Sadly, this voyeurism takes a dark turn when the camera is trained on the women of the narrative, who are often violently fetishized and whose characters' existences are solely defined by their shape and willingness in the eyes of lustful men.

Ostensibly a stylized character study, which revolves around a conscious case of split personalities, Real wears its ambitions (pretensions?) on its sleeve. The vast majority takes place at night, giving the tale the aura of a waking dream as the film begins to up the weird quotient. When the story finally makes way for action, we discover that the limitations of physics are no match for Kim Soo-hyun's fists, which can knock out any opponent with a single blow and the sound of a thunder clap.

Real marks the directorial debut of Kim Soo-hyun's cousin Love Lee (seriously), who replaced the original director and writer Lee Jung-seob at some point during filming and who also runs the production company behind the very expensive project. Regardless of his unfathomable intentions, he's managed to craft something remarkable that sears itself into memory with its singular vision, structure and logic be damned.

As for Kim, he throws himself tooth and nail into his characters and when both are on screen (which is often), the effect is slightly surreal. Veterans Lee Sung-min (Broken), Sung Dong-il (Miss Granny) and Lee Kyoung-young (Inside Men) offer reliable support, even if their roles aren't always clear, and former f(x) member Sully (The Pirates) does her best in a thankless role that amounts to little more than eye candy.

If you can imagine a cross between Guy Ritchie's Revolver, Nicholas Winding Refn's last couple of films and the heyday of Seijun Suzuki, you might be able to glimpse an idea of what lies in store but frankly there's never been anything like this before. Love it or hate it, there's no denying that this future camp cult classic is the 'real' deal.


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  1. Thank you so much for this review; if it wasn't for you I've never would've watched it. I love Asian dramas, but I also tend to stay far away from movies with so many "tv stars".
    Very interesting aesthetic choices, very surprised with Kim's performance (clearly he's not just a pretty face), and a fantastic and bizarre ending which I loved.
    So glad you're back =)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, and hope others seek it out too!

  2. Thank you for your fair, honest and objective review. This movie received the type of vitriol that was completely uncalled for. I wish more people can go and see for themselves, rather than go with the so called consensus. It's sad in a way that people a few degrees removed from Korean culture have managed to embrace the movie more than the Koreans have. Love your reviews by the way, regardless the view, they were all beautifully written.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      I understand a lot of the criticisms of the film yet the ridicule has taken on a life of its own. Once a little time passes and if people approach it with different expectations, perhaps the local perspective will change over time. That said, I've spoken to several people here, many in the film industry, who love the film.

    2. How can I watch this Movie?

  3. I was taken aback by Kim's acting. That is only the plus point I felt after watching it.