Korean thrillers have earned a reputation for consistency over the years and, though there may only be a few great ones, the majority of them are solid efforts. However, we've come to expect a lot of the same tropes as a result of this consistency, so much so that they have begun to feel too familiar over time.
One of the latest offerings from the genre is Cold Eyes, which set the stage for a summer full of Korean thrillers (others included Snowpiercer, The Terror Live, The Flu and Hide and Seek). With an innovative approach to location filming in Seoul and featuring three stars playing against type, Cold Eyes may seem familiar, but it's also a fresh and exciting addition to the genre.
A young cop (Han Hyo-joo) aces an elaborate test and is recruited into an elite group of surveillance investigators in the heart of Seoul, led by Detective Hwang (Seol Kyung-gu). The crack team comes up against a tough opponent in the form of James (Jung Woo-sung), a vicious criminal who stages big heists as he oversees operations from high vantage points with the aid of a phone and a monocular.
Right from the get-go, the film announces itself as a slick and clever thriller, with dynamic pacing, strong lensing and a particularly strong use of space. Rarely has Seoul been used to such great effect on screen. Korean cinema has been rightly lauded for its production design work over the years, a skill that was perhaps born out of necessity, as Seoul (as well as other Korean towns) lacks the big city feel of places like New York, London and Hong Kong. Though a bustling metropolis, it is without a skyline or many architectural distinctions. Cold Eyes uses the city to marvelous effect by crisscrossing the infrastructure of the town and playing with levels in innovative ways. Subways, traditional markets, and a glitz-less (and realistic) Gangnam are all used to great effect.
Firmly rooted in Hollywood genre cinema, the makers of Cold Eyes have done their homework by recognizing what makes those films tick. It borrows from the styles of films like Michael Mann's Heat (1995), the cold open of The Dark Knight (2011), which the former inspired, and the Johnny To-produced HK thriller Eye in the Sky (2007), which it was based on. The construction is mechanical and the execution serious (though never overly so) but the result is thrilling. The camerawork and editing are uniformly strong, if not groundbreaking. In the midst of it all, the only weak point is the soundtrack, with its standard mishmash of pulsating guitars, drums and decks, which is far too derivative (and a rung below) of similar pictures without adding anything new to the mix.
As dynamic as the investigation is, there is a slight issue of balance regarding the antagonist. The villain's scenes, while entertaining, don't tie in to the main thread of the narrative until much later. Having Jung Woo-sung play a villain is a treat, but perhaps aligning his arc with the surveillance team's mission earlier on would have tied things together a little better. As things stand, we follow two strands that run parallel but don't combine until the final act. It may be two sides of the same crime, but the villain doesn't know he's being chased and the cops don't know who they're chasing. It's a shame because more interplay between Seol and Jung would have been a rare treat.
While some of this year's thrillers have been gimmicky (The Terror Live), ambitious (Snowpiercer), or throwbacks to earlier Korean films (the child kidnap-themed Montage), Cold Eyes works by being shorn of melodrama and universal in its execution. Joh Ui-seok has been around for a while (The World of Silence, 2006) but the addition of co-director Kim Byung-seo -- they studied cinematography together in university -- has made them a tag team to be on the lookout for. Informed by the best and with a beat of its own, Cold Eyes is most certainly worth a gander.