Im Sang-Soo brings to us a Korean tale of corruption and family, but not necessarily in that order. When it comes to the two in fact, it quickly becomes apparent that director’s take is that they are not mutually exclusive.
Focusing on a rich, powerful, not so law abiding, family and their internal power play for the family fortune this movie quickly devolves into less of an epic familial struggle and more of a TV drama.
Following Young-Jak Joo, whose job it seems is to be anything and everything for everyone, we descend into a spiral of decadence as we witness the Yoon family partake in governmental bribes, arrests, and secret surveillance. Some could supplanted intrigue into my previous sentence, but I would have found that disingenuous as the movie was truly lacking in that department.
It starts strong, having Joo struggle with the moral conundrum of having to deal with, literal, piles of cash; egged on no less by his boss who openly encourages him to, essentially, ‘skim’ off the top. Something that Joo chooses to not do, instead breathing in deep the wads of cash he will probably never see again. It’s a great start point that helps to instantly establish the moral barometer of our protagonist. What a shame then that, during it’s overly long 115 minutes, it’s all too easy to grow disconnected, bored and frustrated with these characters and their, ultimately, menial rich lives and lifestyles.
The plot frequently switches between the political games and criminal activity/corruption that the family lives by to the interpersonal relationships between its key players. The balance however doesn’t work, making it feel very heavy handed every time we switch focus from one to the other. Mr. Yoon, patriarch of the family and head of their company, partakes in an affair with his Filipina housemaid only for their affair to be discovered by his now irate wife after she utilizes the secret cameras to spy on their activity from the safety of her monitor den. Fueled by the rage this information provides, Madam Baek, the matriarch of the family, begins her descent into madness out of spite and jealousy. A plot point that should have been the incident propelling us into a new and interesting arc then instead falls flat as we are mired in predictability and a dark turn with fatal repercussions. It all feels so ‘made for TV’. It lacks a truly cinematic edge, despite how well shot the movie actually. In truth, I thought the actual movie looked glorious. Using a RED ONE would do that. What it can’t do is hide the obvious cracks in story and performance.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t highlight the performance of Darcy Paquet who singly handedly steals every scene he’s in with his flat and wooden performance. His character of Robert Altman, who represents the West in its corrupt entirety, appears only to indulge in illicit business dealings, drinking and fucking his way through the movie. An odd character that serves a one dimensionally singular purpose, it’s too bad that Asian movies are all too guilty of hiring those they simply can, rather than perhaps those that they should. On the flip reverse of this; both Kim Kang-Woo, as Joo, and Baek Yun-Shik, playing Mr. Yoon, give solid performances throughout as the morally troubled protagonist and failing patriarch, respectively.
The real thematic idea of the movie: the soul destroying quagmire that is an obsession with money and material things is pertinent in a culture that has such an undeniable focus on the principal that “happiness = money”, something that is true in both Eastern and Western cultures. It’s a concept that is neatly wrapped up into a singular word when Mr. Yoon displays a moment of clarity in relation to his obsession: Contempt. A contempt for money. Which is all well and good for those upper classes that can afford to hate their vast riches, of course. Poor them.
Im Sang-Soo, accompanying the movie having been invited to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival felt the, understandable, need to defend his movie after it received an almost unanimously negative reaction by stating that it was simply a “very Korean story” and was something that “foreigners can’t understand.”
An unfortunately weak excuse, from a clearly competent director, for a movie that will leave viewers feeling as though they just sat through a a marathon session of a well shot soap opera, with all the prerequisite overly dramatic twists, turns and scene chewing that that entails.
Steve Russell // @stevtendo