Soo [수] Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)

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Sigh. I expect better than this from a director with this much talent and experience. Much, much better. Korean-Japanese director Yoichi Sai has a very well deserved reputation as a gifted director, his skills very much on display in recent Takeshi Kitano star vehicle Blood and Bones which does a masterful job of building characters and scenarios into a compelling portrait of both an actual person and a specific time period. So I'm at a loss to explain what happened with Soo. Perhaps the pressure of working in Korean for the first time got to Sai a little bit, perhaps he rushed into production before he had quite finished with his script. But whatever the case may be Soo starts off exceptionally well only to end as one of the most disappointing films of Sai's career, a textbook case of missed opportunity.

Here's the basic premise: Soo is a career criminal, a freelance thug willing to do just about anything that will pay. He is smart, stylish, cunning and absolutely ruthless, a man whose complete rootlessness leaves him free to serve nobody but himself. But there is one issue which consumes him, that has been eating away at him for decades: the twin brother lost to him years before thanks to his own carelessness, the brother he has been trying to find again ever since. Soo is on the cusp of ultimate success at film's beginning. He has just pulled off the job of a lifetime, the job that will let him retire, and the private investigators on his brother's trail are finally making progress. But then tragedy strikes and Soo is set on to the path of bloody, violent revenge.

Soo is essentially two films in one, the first half showcasing all of Sai's typical strengths while the second loses its way badly. We begin with a simply stellar action set piece with Soo kidnapping a gang boss and forcing him to sign over a major contract in the midst of a high speed car chase entirely contained within an underground parking garage. It's gripping stuff that not only hooks the audience with the requisite rush of adrenaline but that also immediately establishes Soo as a believable character. Sai moves from the chase into more fully developed character work, quickly introducing us to Soo as a person and to the blend of characters In his world. It is smart, efficient, effective film making driven by Sai's keen eye, a smartly minimalistic script and strong, understated performances by his leads. Hell, the set up for the film even gives hope that Sai has found a way to effectively balance out the melodrama and action elements of the film -- a core requirement for Korean film, as any fan can tell you -- with the emotional elements introduced in a simply devastating manner. If Sai had maintained the tone of the first half of the picture he would quite likely have had a masterpiece on his hands, one of the finest Korean crime pictures in years.

But he doesn't. Sai loses his way -- badly -- in the instant the film shifts into revenge mode. The balance achieved in the early going is jettisoned as Soo becomes a single minded killing machine. This wouldn't necessarily be entirely a bad thing -- blood soaked revenge pictures are not without their own, unique charms, after all -- if Sai had only kept at least half an eye on keeping his characters believable. But he doesn't. More specifically he doesn't keep the violence believable. In a film meant to be a gritty piece of realism Soo is apparently as impervious to pain as any slasher film villain. He is beaten with a baseball bat. It doesn't seem to affect him. He is beaten with a crowbar. Not a problem. He is beaten again, slashed across the back of his leg with a sashimi knife, stabbed in both shoulders with ice picks, stabbed, beaten yet again, shot multiple times and slashed across the throat with a katana, sending massive gouts of blood spraying across the room. And yet he remains curiously unaffected. His opponents, though, go down with a single blow. There is no attempt at maintaining continuity. He bears no visible marks of his wounds. Before you're even half way through the revenge part of the film he has taken so much abuse that his insides should be reduced to a bloody, pulpy stew and yet he continues to behave as though nothing has happened. Are we not supposed to notice the complete lack of blood or loss of mobility when he pulls a pair of icepicks out of his own back? It is complete foolishness, a complete lack of regard for any sort of reality that reduces the film down to a hollow shell, a bitter parody of itself that completely squanders the early strengths.

Sai should know better than this. Sai does know better than this. Soo is a major, major disappointment.

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