Superstar Song Kang-Ho (Thirst, The Good, The Bad, The Weird) plays Doo-Hyeon, a legendary mobster back in the day who's left his gangster brethren behind after the squabble over who gets to succeed their ailing boss threatens to turn nasty. Doo-Hyeon's happy enough going straight, spending his days taking cooking classes and dreaming of opening up his own restaurant, but the sullen young woman on the course with the station next to his is not all she seems. Se Bin (Shin Se Kyung) is actually a crack sharpshooter who was once tipped for greatness before tragedy left her struggling to make ends meet. Doo-Hyeon's old rivals simply can't accept there's no ulterior motive behind his retirement, and they've forced Se Bin to keep tabs on him - but once she's got close to the man, once Doo-Hyeon's enemies decide they've got no more use for him will Se Bin be up to pulling the trigger?
While this might sound like some labyrinthine, blood-soaked crime drama from which no-one escapes intact, you have to understand Hindsight comes from the man who gave us one of the better-known films of the Korean Wave, the picture-postcard timeskip romance Il Mare. This was the movie that shot Jeon Ji-Hyun to stardom (before her attempt to break into Hollywood, at least) and had enough audiences outside Korea reaching for their handkerchiefs that the rights got snapped up for the English-language remake The Lake House. Slick, glossy and pumped full of sap - she's in 1999! He's in 1997! Can their love bring them together across time and space? - Il Mare was tailor-made to be a breakout hit even before the Korean film industry realised they could turn this sort of thing out to a formula year on year.
But the thing about Il Mare is, to be honest, it was never really that great. It's trite, shallow, manipulative and marred by an ending that seems so astonishingly, blatantly re-written at the last minute to keep the audience sweet you feel as if you ought to be able to see the joins where the new scenes have been spliced in. The stars are clearly better than the film, and the story simply isn't that memorable beyond the fanciful premise. (Ditto did much the same thing the same year, with far more depth and subtlety, yet without a breakout star it got passed over.) Hindsight is plagued by many of the exact same problems, from pacing, to self-indulgent asides, to clumsy swings between extremes of tone - to be blunt, Lee Hyun-Seung's direction feels exactly like the work of a man who hasn't made a film in more than a decade.
Hindsight is horribly over-stuffed, from the sheer amount of detail in Se Bin's backstory that goes largely nowhere, to the way the mob power struggle drags on and on to no effect, to the way Lee Hyun-Seung luxuriates in the cooking scenes for no apparent reason (much like Il Mare). He teases out character development and set pieces to a stupefying degree, jumping artlessly between gritty melodrama and ham-fisted soap-opera farce - most of the final showdown is so ridiculously overblown it ends up as high camp, and Doo-Hyeon and Se Bin's budding relationship takes up so much screen time in the middle third it practically derails the film. Hindsight kicks off with a dramatic cold open, but most viewers will probably have forgotten anything needed wrapping up by the time it finishes.
And yet Hindsight does manage to be surprisingly entertaining, if you've got the patience for it. It's partly the cast wrestling an impressive amount of emotion out of the script despite Lee Hyun-Seung's witless direction; Song Kang-Ho plays the jokes with winning restraint, going for wry smiles rather than belly laughs, and comes across as genuinely menacing when he needs to. Shin Se Kyung can't match him for superstar presence, but she's still able to get considerable pathos out of her emotionally stunted hit girl, as well as an awkward charm whenever it's hinted their relationship could be more than simply platonic. Occasionally Lee's fascination with pop video gloss produces something with genuine visual flair, too, along with actual drama. A frantic knife fight at the other end of Se Bin's sniper scope is hardly The Yellow Sea, but it's still pretty gripping, and the odd moment of black comedy (like the fate of one of the bad guys' underlings early on) is a welcome diversion.
An odd film, then, a thriller that's way too happy to coast on star power and cheap emotional manipulation - but one with definite heart and a sort of absent-minded cleverness, for all its chronically lazy production values. Lee Hyun-Seung deserves a short, sharp shock for this, no question: there's little evidence he's learnt anything at all in more than ten years out of the director's chair. At the same time, there's a lot to like here, despite the bloat and general willingness to tread water. It's not much of a thriller, but it can be thrilling; the sprawling character arcs are frequently fascinating, and the cast make these damaged souls people you want to root for, despite the script's shameless pandering. If you can resist the urge to fast-forward whenever the movie starts grinding its gears, Hindsight comes recommended despite its flaws.
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