How does this sound for a concept:
A naive young artist with money problems and an evil dying billionaire start playing a dangerous game with each other.
The stakes: one billion won or the right to take over the opponent's body.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it?
Especially when the two leads are played by Shin Ha-Kyun and Byun Hee-Bong. Yes, the charismatic quirky assassin from "No Mercy For the Rude" versus the family patriarch from "The Host", providing an acting duel between two loved character actors.
Well, someone actually made this concept into a movie. And finally I got a chance to see it because the English-friendly Korean DVD was released a few weeks ago, of course with a suitably pimped Limited Edition (as always the best way to get my attention).
Unfortunately, "The Devil's Game" has grave problems working as a movie once you start noticing that it isn't giving any attention to either the game or the devils playing it.
Read on after the break.
Hui-Do (Shin Ha-Kyun) is a portrait painter whose girlfriend owns a flower shop. Unfortunately her father left her with a hefty loan when he died, and thugs keep harassing them to pay the money.
Humiliated and angry, Hui-Do enters a bet with Noh-Sik (Byun Hee-Bong), an evil billionaire who is dying from a heart disease. The wager is as follows: they phone someone at random and if the person who picks up is female, Hui-Do gets one billion Korean Won (roughly one million USD). However, if the person is male Noh-Sik gets Hui-Do's body as a donor transplant.
Hui-Do loses the bet, and through a gruesome operation the two men have their brains and cortexes exchanged.
Released from hospital as an old man with a failing heart, Hui-Do has to race the clock to try and get his own body back before the current one stops working.
Unfortunately the only persons who believe him are a moronic uncle and Noh-Sik's vicious ex-wife...
I'm interested in seeing any movie starring Shin Ha-Kyun. In my opinion he is an amazing talent, neither particularly strong or particularly attractive but able to express anything you'd want him to. During a lot of "No Mercy For the Rude" he couldn't use his voice or his eyes (wearing sunglasses), having to rely totally on body-language, but he pulled that off amazingly. Likewise, Byun Hee-Bong is a scene-stealer of the highest order with impeccable comic timing whenever the need to use it arises.
Having these two duke it out on the screen, even taking over each others' roles at some point, seems like an idea made in heaven. Upon its release last year, more than 1.5 million Koreans thought so too and bought a ticket.
Unfortunately, "The Devil's Game" squanders its potential by not giving the hero character (whoever plays him) anything to do except be helpless and mope. To take that thought a bit further: why should we be on his side in the first place? He accepts an insanely dangerous bet and suffers the consequences when he loses. The only reason we hope he'll win is because his opponent is such a despicable bastard.
Had billionaire Noh-Sik been just a desperate old man seeking a few extra years to spend with the woman he loves, his children and grandchildren, the story would have been vastly different, with Hui-Do suddenly being as morally ambiguous as a mother who has given her baby up for adoption but suddenly wants it back.
Might be a more interesting film, damn...
And this is "The Devil's Game" biggest failure: after the body-swap, the story sort of dies and gets boring. There are faults already before that point (lack of characterization, cartoonish thugs used as tired plot device), but afterwards it gets pretty bad and introduces plothole upon plothole, all of which are allowed to exist unaddressed to the end.
And for what?
I don't mind having to make an effort suspending my disbelief if it leads to riveting action, a stunning twist or an unforgettable conclusion. Hell, the story is an adaptation of a Japanese manga comic, you'd expect some thrills, right? But you won't get any of that here.
Because it all just leads to more griping and moping by Hui-Do, while Noh-Sik doesn't seem to have too much fun either. There is a shot at comic relief where Hui-Do's uncle is involved, but again that character is too consistently annoying to get a laugh out of me. For that matter, all side characters (except one) fail to make an impression, and especially the actresses have insultingly one-dimensional roles.
Seriously: any change in the story you can think of would have made the second half more interesting or entertaining than it now is.
The plan Hui-Do chooses to follow to get his own body back is clumsily revealed and never gets exciting in the first place. Any chance to build tension is... not used. Strangely enough the "deleted scenes" on the disc (more about that later) show director Yoon In-Ho excised the movie's ONLY thrilling action scene!
Even "The Game" itself is bereft of any excitement, and its choice totally arbitrary. Hui-Do and Noh-Sik could have flipped a coin and it wouldn't change a thing about this film. You'll watch it to the end to see how it concludes, the film manages to generate at least THAT much interest, but even then...
I just can't imagine those 1.5 million Koreans left the cinema excited and thrilled.
So what's good?
Well, if ever I want to make a glossy looking movie I'll go to Korea and hire this crew. Never mind the misgivings I have with regard to the script, the visuals have been polished till they shine. Kudos to the art direction and lighting crew!
The brain-and-cortex operation is a good example of this. It looks VERY convincing and even if the actual procedure is impossible to do in real life, it will make you flinch and get you thinking... In fact, this scene might be the only reason for me to hang on to this disc.
Second, the movie still shows Shin Ha-Kyun and Byun Hee-Bong hamming it up against each other. Even though the script gives them desperately little to work with they somehow manage to do good work here.
And if it's a duel, Byun Hee-Bong wins the first price. Both actors keep afloat even during the worst moments but Byun Hee-Bong makes it look easy while Shin Ha-Kyun struggles a bit with the poorest material. It really is such a shame the movie can't keep up with these two actors.
The only supporting character making some sort of impression is Lee Hye-Young as Noh-Sik's "widow", no mean feat seeing how underwritten her role is in the story.
Korea's take on the old "swapped identity" tale aims high with a stellar cast, and it looks glossy, but the very weak script gives the actors not enough to work with.
About the DVD:
"The Devil's Game" is attractively packaged in a slipcase which might make your head spin: it's completely covered in holographic foil. It takes some time to figure out how to open it, but when you know how it's not difficult to get the discs out. Included are some cards showing some of the different movie posters.
Frequent forumer BtoFu was kind enough to put some pictures of this edition up in our "most beautiful DVD" topic, so go see for yourself!
Disc one has the movie. Video and Audio are fine, and the English subtitles are good.
Odd though: the image is NOT interlaced (good!!) but has a bit of overscan in it, strangely enough nearly all on the left side. Enough so that I've cut it out of the screenshots here.
I'd love to be able to understand the commentary track since it not only features the director and producer, but also Shin Ha-Kyun, Byun Hee-Bong and Lee Hye-Young! It would be nice to hear their take on this.
Disc two houses the extras, as usual with most Korean releases these are not subtitled or dubbed.
The trailer is included, a short documentary on the making of the posters (which, granted, are very pretty), some footage of press conferences, and nearly twenty minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary.
Strangely enough, some of the deleted scenes look as if they should have been kept in. Especially a chase involving Lee Hye-Young, making her look far less docile.
And there are four 10-to-15 minute documentaries, covering the production of the movie. Most of it is talking heads and scenes from the film, so for the non-Korean speaking viewer there is not much to enjoy.
Until you get to the fourth, which covers art direction and special effects make-up.
More importantly, it shows in gruesome detail how they did the operation scenes in the film, and the undignified procedure the actors had to go through to have full-body casts created of them. Brrrr. The people making the bodies seem quite enthusiastic and with reason: they did a fine job!
Concluding, this is a nice package with decent extras. Unfortunately I didn't think much of the film itself, which might have been the worst (semi-)blind buy I did in years if not for the two actors and that surgery scene...