Country: South Korea/Japan/China
Director: Song Hae-seong
Remake of: John Woo’s 英雄本色 (Yīngxióng běnsè/A Better Tomorrow, Hong Kong, 1986)
Screenplay: Kim Hyo-Seok, Choi Keun-Mo, Lee Taek-Kyung, Kim Hae-Gon
Cinematography: Kang Seung-Ki
Soundscore: Lee Jae-jin
Cast: Joo Jin-Mo, Song Seung-Heon, Kim Kang-Woo, Jo Han-Seon
Runtime: 124 min
There is one particular problem with Moojeokja, a remake of John Woo’s 英雄本色 (Yīngxióng běnsè/A Better Tomorrow, Hong Kong, 1986): it is an action film made by a director that is in reality only interested in sentimental melodramas. Truth be told, I never expected all that much from Moojeokja, despite the fact that other films by Song Hae-seong – 우리들의 행복한 시간 (Woorideuleui Haengbokhan Sigan/Maundy Thursday aka Our Happy Time, 2006) and 파이란 (Pailan/Failan, 2001) in particular – have been on my to-watch list for a while. But Moojeokja, I knew, was an action-based mob film, all about gangsters and the dramatic entanglements, lies and betrayals in their lives, with blood-pumping chases and violent shootouts quite a certainty – not really the sort of thing I usually go for.
More specifically, it’s the story of Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-mo), who lives in Busan, South Korea, but originally hails from the North. Now a high-ranking mobster, his life is comfortable if dangerous, but deep inside himself the memory of the people he left behind continues to haunt him: while he managed to flee the country, his mother was beaten to death and his brother imprisoned. This past weighs heavily on his conscience, but in the South Kim Hyuk is only known as a ruthless mobster and occupies a high position within the Mob that he is part of. When he takes a new recruit, Jung Tae-min (Jo Han-seon), on a mission to Thailand, it ends in a shootout between gangsters. It turns out to be a set-up by Jung that eventually leads to the lead protagonist being caught by Thai police and imprisoned for three years. Defeated, Kim Hyuk then returns to South Korea upon his release, intent on giving up the life of crime. In Busan however he discovers that the cunning Jung Tae-min has risen to the top, that his mobster friend Lee Young-choon (Song Seung-Heon) is limping for some unknown reason and that his long-lost brother Kim Chul (Kim Kang-Woo) has reappeared and now works at the local Police Department. When Kim Hyuk learns the truth behind Lee Young-choon’s injury and that Jung Tae-min is after his sibling, he snaps.
It’s a plot that is convoluted from the start as we hop between countries – it’s easy to get lost on the what, where and who in the first half hour of the film – but Moojeokja is further hampered by the fact that Song Hae-song insists on having an equally emotion- as well as action-centred storyline. Clearly invested in the personal relationship between characters, the director explores the estrangement between the brothers, with Kim Hyuk feeling burdened by his conscience while the younger Kim Chul is full of hatred for his sibling, whom he blames both for the death of their mother and for abandoning him. The younger brother’s anger is so deep-seated that he refuses all contact and, indeed, no longer considers Kim Hyuk family. Another relationship is between the gangsters-in-arms – Kim Hyuk and his long-time companion Lee Young-choon, with whom he shares the experience of having grown up in North Korea. Although the two men would never utter the word “friendship” in each other’s presence, their mutual loyalty is revealed over the course of the film and makes them like brothers.
In some ways an action thriller/gangster film that explores the psychology of its protagonists – their human sides, their emotional weaknesses – is laudable, as we get more than just senseless action or a storyline where the motivations of characters are difficult to discern. However, with the framework of genre always looming over Moojeokja, what Song Hae-seong fails to get right is the balance between emotions and actions: too much of one, too little of the other, and often in the wrong places. The prime example is a lengthy gun battle that breaks out at the film’s climax, with the Kim brothers and Lee Young-choon on one side and Jung Tae-min and his large mob on the other. The heavy fighting suddenly stops – more than once in fact – so that the still estranged brothers can air their grievances for several minutes, something that makes absolutely no sense. While the narrative purpose for the brothers’ reconciliation is understandable (it provides conclusion, even more so given the unsurprising *spoiler alert* no one survives ending *end spoiler*), the scene itself is not: gangsters in a deathly fight do not give each other a time-out for a wee brotherly chat.
As the king of melos that Song Hae-seong is – at least from what I know of his other films -, the director would have been better off creating a story more like 보트 / 「ノーボーイズ、ノークライ」(Bo-teu/Boat aka No Boys, No Cry, South Korea/Japan, 2009), which has a crime background but is squarely focused on being a human drama and character study, or otherwise truly giving the action genre a chance by leaving all emotional spectacle behind.
Overall verdict: A melodrama that tries to be an action film is probably rarely a good idea, particularly if directed by a filmmaker who relishes overly emotional storylines and doomed characters. Moojeokja may be watchable, but some of its melo moments are simply too nonsensical, putting the action on hold (excuse the pun) mid-action.
- REVIEWS from shuizmz.com and Twitch Film, just in case you wanted a second opinion.
- Trailer for the Hong Kong original 英雄本色 (Yīngxióng běnsè/A Better Tomorrow, 1986), which I have not seen but is apparently a bit of a classic. Given the generally middling reception of the Korean remake, you may be better off watching the original – particularly if you are looking for a proper action film.
- Song Hae-song’s film seems to be readily available, e.g. on Blu-ray (with 3D) at amazon.co.uk or as a download from iTunes (£5.99).