Su-ta is going through a particularly bad patch in his career. He may be a popular film star, but his press has being going sour for a while. He is hiding his current relationship from the paparazzi by reducing it to sexual trysts in a van down by the river, and the new girlfriend is getting pretty annoyed. His personal assistant is letting him know his spending and lifestyle are maxing out his current income. And to top it off, his director, Bong, (enthusiast and obsequious fanboy, a name play on the director of The Host, perhaps?) is obsessed with more realistic fighting in his movie. This resulting experimentation has had a few landed blows because of Su-ta's propensity to lose his temper under the stress. With no actors willing to act opposite him in the fight scenes, the movie is in jeopardy and the director has started to seriously hit the soju and place the mounting pressure on his leading actor. Oh, and he is acting the romance in the film against an ex-girlfriend.
One night, a particularly awkward run-in at a restaurant with local gangsters results in a confrontational stare-down that leads to a rather off-the-wall solution to all of the above. Why not cast Gang-pae, a movie-lover (whose total acting experience involves being an extra driving a car in a film 10 years ago) but has a sense the cool and competence of a high level gangster, in the villain role of the picture? Gang-pae (an enigmatic trickster typified by Clint Eastwood in the Leone pictures or Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's) has only one stipulation on the deal; that things will be fought for real with no play-fighting. This inspired lunacy leads to a Spaghetti Western toned 'battle of cool' between white suited actor, and the whip-smart and cool as Yojimbo black-suited gangster. Gang-pae seems to want to give Su-ta a trial by fire, a loving re-write of his own career choices whilst knocking his favourite actor down a peg or two. The continued series of one-upmanships and tangential subplots offer an unpredictable and enjoyable meta-movie that can't help but bask in the bright lights of its two leads who seem to grey into one another. Not so much that their lives or careers are mirrored (this is hinted at briefly then ignored), but rather if the two could somehow merge (metaphorically by beating the living shit out each other) they would be a better or at least complete person.
As high gloss commercial South Korean pictures go, Rough Cut is a bit of a misnomer. Penned and produced by art-house favourite Kim Ki Duk, I am happy to learn that the bleak, often mysognynist auteur both has a sense of humour and god-forbid a romantic soft-spot, or at least a willingness to please a general audience. And the icing on this particular cake is the fact that it is smart and witty (although not particularly deep). A Kim Ki Duk crowd-pleaser? You find something new and weird every day. The frizzy-frumpled director - the one making the film with the film - plays as comic relief, and oddly as a stand-in for both the audience and very also likely for the screenwriter (himself a prolific director), is prone to cry out, in exasperation: "Movies are not a Joke!" Yet the banal action oriented (yet romantic) gangster picture being shot here is a slick satire on this type of popular film in South Korea (for example the decidedly mediocre (if handsome) Tazza: War of Flowers). There is much visual flair, often the sets in the movie mimic locations of gangster going ons in the 'real lives' of both actor and gangster. Lines of dialogue from the film-within-the-film script end up used outside of the movie and vice versa. The camera pulls through the action into a movie theatre more than once to underscore the flipping back and forth and the whole meta-ness of the film. But it never loses sight of a desire to entertain and show why we like going to the movies. Given the macho attitude of Rough Cuts leading men (and the tempering sweetness of the two ladies that make a lot of tiny (yet important) roles) it is rather profound to find the picture ending on a sweet and humble note. Sergio Leone would be proud of this one.