Korean noir gets an action makeover in Believer, the explosive and hugely entertaining local remake of Johnny To's mainland Chinese crime saga Drug War. A parade of Korean character actors sink their teeth into deliciously over-the-top characters, including the beloved Kim Joo-hyuk, in his final screen role (completed just before his death in a car crash last October), in a retelling that both improves on and falls short of the original.
Detective Won-ho has been chasing the elusive Mr. Lee, the head of Korea's largest drug syndicate, for years, but after losing an informant he takes drastic measures and teams up with drug dealer Rak, who is grieving his mother's death after Mr. Lee torched one of his own drug kitchens. To get to Mr. Lee, Won-ho must take on several fake identities to fool key figures on both sides of a major drug deal.
Following his quirky coming-of-age drama Like A Virgin, his sex comedy Foxy Festival and his ornate period psychodrama The Silenced, director Lee Hae-young gleefully tackles the action-thriller genre in his most successful commercial outing. Along with frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung Seo-kyung (The Handmaiden), Lee has taken the bones of Johnny To's high-octane original and amped up the emotional stakes of the story, particularly for the central relationship between the detective and the mole. The update also takes a different stylistic approach, emphasizing sleek and deliberately over-the-top visuals. Gone is the dusty grit of the Chinese setting, replaced by a resplendent Seoul, creatively garish sets and picturesque countryside locales (including a few snow swept scenes in Norway).
Taking a little time to set its pieces in motion, Believer kicks into gear when Rak agrees to work with Won-ho, as the pair hatch a plan and head to a fancy hotel to pull off an elaborate double deception. This famous scene from To's film remains largely intact, with only a few tweaks but a lot more intensity, particularly from a formidably menacing Kim Joo-hyuk (Confidential Assignment) as the Chinese-Korean gang boss the pair are trying to dupe, but also an impressive Park Hae-joon (Fourth Place) as Rak's unhinged superior, who is the target of the second set-up.
Where Believer is improves on its progenitor is its spin on Rak's mute drug cook friends when the story moves to the countryside. No mean feat as the pair are a highlight of the original. Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young are electric as a brother and sister pair, at first hilarious with their obscenity-laced sign language bickering that has to be colorfully interpreted for the nearby police squad, and then effortlessly badass when the shit hits the fan later on.
The film's funniest scene quickly segues into the most emotional one as Ryu Jun-yeol proves why he is well on his way to becoming one of Korea's biggest stars as Rak. The young actor gives another layered and convincing performance following scene-stealing parts in The King, A Taxi Driver and Little Forest. Through a handful of scenes with his mute sibling friends, Ryu easily slides between comedy and sentimentality, all the while exuding a cool, commanding presence. Ryu takes a very different approach to his character than Louis Koo, but the result is just as memorable.
As Won-ho, Cho Jin-woong (A Hard Day) brings a stoic but driven sensibility to his character, whose obsession with his hunt for Mr. Lee consumes him to the point of putting himself and others in danger.
The rest of the cast features a variety of character actors relishing larger-than-life supporting parts, such as a cool as ice Kim Sung-ryoung (The Target) and a madcap Jin Seo-yeon (Love 911), however with so many big characters on screen, the craziness eventually begins to wear thin. By the time Cha Seung-won (Man on High Heels) makes an appearance, his wild and colorful drug gang captain gets lost in the mix, despite Cha's spirited commitment to the role.
Unlike To's film, Believer struggles a little with its finale. A weak twist mutes the emotional payoff and several choice moments aside, Lee's film can't compete with the HK master when it comes to the extraordinary bullet ballet of Drug War. But these are small quibbles for a film that successfully retools and occasionally surpasses a beloved original.