[K-FILM REVIEWS] 눈에는 눈 이에는 이 (Eye for an Eye)
It might be an interesting quote, coming from someone who met his demise on his very last performance - titled Le Malade Imaginaire at that - but Molière's idea that interesting vices are much more charming than boring virtues has always found its perfect counterpart in the field of filmmaking, not just in the form of famous lines like Welles' cuckoo clock tirade in The Third Man. Take a rather dispassionate look at all of Korea's major directors, and you'll find a certain "vice," coloring their entire œuvre, for instance. Then again, those are merely personality traits existing within their own philosophy of cinema, which re-interpreted through their vision stop being shortcomings or strengths, and become just another shade of their cinematic color. Lee Myung-Se is often accused of working with almost non-existent scripts, mostly by people who ignore he's simply using cameras and sound as his canvas to tell a story; again, one of the major sources of criticism in western mainstream media regarding Park Chan-Wook's work boils down to the violence in his films. Go figure, his emphatically suggested violence ends up "hurting" even more than silly, extremely explicit splatterfests invading theaters, so that criticism is akin to a teenager desensitized by terabytes of digital porn falling down like the Wall in '89 in front of a bit of analog, organic cherry. Oh mama, there's no rewind buttons anymore.
Take Kwak Kyung-Taek, for instance. Certainly not on par with the Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook of the world, but surely a talented filmmaker. Although his career did start much earlier, it was with 2001's 친구 (Friend) that his most apparent "vice" exploded on the screen, with all its strings attached. His films tend to ooze that, how should I call it, "Busan machismo?" This is in no way part of the regionalism which still populates Korean politics and society. It's not, for instance, like when the bald grandpa's junta in the 80s would "suggest" gangsters and baddies should always be played by Jeolla Province residents, as the molotovs certainly wouldn't come from the jolly good folks of Youngnam. It's neither a vestige of the rather lamentable fact the industry built an entire decade of comedy around belittling in not so thinly veiled terms the 지방 (the "provinces," or anywhere outside Seoul) and its residents. No, the Busan you sniff from Kwak Kyung-Taek's films is shown with respect, throwing both scent and smell inside the pot. It's realistic but with a touch of nostalgia; critical while at the same time attaching a certain warmth to the darker shades of the Southeastern vernacular. It's like a mother's tough love, slapping you in the face in the morning and then embracing you when the sun sets.
For many reasons, that brand of Busan machismo could have made Kwak feel like a rather parochial director, particularly in an era when Korean directors were receiving accolades from all over the world. Hell, it could be one of the reasons which moved him to step out of small stories with a local setting and explore the international blockbuster genre, in what was the only real stinker of his "mature" career, 2005's 태풍 (Typhoon). Kwak upping the ante with a blockbuster was something he probably needed to escape from the shadows of Friend. In some ways, the less stylish 챔피언 (Champion) and 똥개 (Mutt Boy) pale to the almost Scorsesian pathos of the 2001 super-hit, but they're paradoxically stronger stories with much more punch and dramatic flair. Returning to his beloved Busan setting in the melodrama 사랑 (A Love) could be a sign Kwak regretted doubling his scale and enlarging his spectrum, with the local flavor (albeit Champion was set in the opposite side of the country) of four of his last five films playing a sort of kimchi-like element, a jack of all trades. But you know what happens with those jacks. What if, removed from their environment, they just fail to become "master" of anything?
It could still be a worthy question for Kwak as a director. Can he do anything on a bigger scale, removed from the local? Save for Typhoon, all his past films in this decade deal with what could be summed up as childhood memories. Friend was exactly that, as Kwak famously used the story of a childhood friend; Kim Deuk-Gu's tragic story he used for Champion was something Kwak saw on TV while growing up; finally, Mutt Boy and particularly last year's A Love (which feels in many ways like a spin-off of Friend with much more melodramatic punch) could be stories any kid from the provinces could have experienced. Although he certainly has something else on the table for the future, Kwak still doesn't seem to strip himself off that obsession, since his next work will be a TV drama version of Friend starring Hyun Bin and Kim Min-Joon. But, in that sense, 눈에는 눈 이에는 이 (Eye for an Eye) is a rather interesting escapade. It's something he hadn't planned to start, but was essentially given to. It's something, in many ways, straying from Kwak's cinematic course, and certainly a challenge he had to take, before it was too late.
That is the reason you see not one, but two directors in the credits list. Eye for an Eye in fact started as an Ahn Kwon-Tae film, not a Kwak Kyung-Taek one. After growing up under Kwak's wings as assistant director for Friend, Ahn joined Kwak's production company Zininsa Film and debuted with the 2004 drama 우리형 (My Brother). This was a well-acted, well-meaning if a little uneven flick. In some aspects it was like low-fi Kwak Kyung-Taek, with the same local sensibilities but without the realistic punch, although Shin Ha-Gyun, Won Bin and Kim Hae-Sook did a wonderful job with what they were given. Perhaps because of his own experiences with Typhoon, Kwak advised Ahn not to go for anything bigger for his second film, as all the difficulties he faced changing style despite being an experienced director would have surely affected even more someone with only one film in the tank. But Ahn started this project anyway, in an atmosphere where one film after another was facing huge funding problems. That is why this started as a sort of Korean Ocean's Eleven -- or perhaps closer to another 범죄의 재구성 (The Big Swindle) -- and eventually ended up as something structurally similar to Heat.
It wasn't just a storytelling-related decision, they simply had to, if they wanted to get this to theaters. About a year ago, Chungmuro was engulfed in a transitory phase which saw the screen quota cut making the first victims, and some bad decisions like 디워 (D-War) impact film funding psychologically in ways that are still felt today. More than half a dozen sageuk projects went belly up, almost all adapted from Kim Tak-Hwan's historical crime novels. And, sure enough, this film was involved as well, as it saw its production budget cut by over one third. Ahn had shot already a good 60% of the film, and the ghost of Gong Su-Chan's GP506 (The Guard Post) was looming over the project already. They had two big stars in Cha Seung-Won and Han Suk-Gyu, they already had shot most of the important car chases and action scenes, so they needed someone who could patch it all up into a cohesive sum, and make it a respectable hit. The man for the job ended up being Ahn's mentor, Kwak Kyung-Taek. That is why, in many ways, this film is very interesting. Technically it's not a Kwak film, in the sense that it doesn't ooze any of the Busan machismo (or local flavor) of his past films: it's slick, very stylish, a lot more ironic and pungent and less dramatic than any of Kwak's films, but some of the details certain smell of his touch.
The reason is easy to explain. Kwak was convinced to join production by Ahn and Taewon Entertainment's Jung Tae-Won, but it wasn't a mere directorial change. As much as the two's styles resemble each other, that would have been like suicide. This was something closer to a passing of the torch: producers needed someone experienced enough to deliver the goods technically while working within the budget, patch up the product in a way that would satisfy initial expectations, and still retain the style of whatever Ahn had shot. Kwak was told to limit, where possible, his stylistic touch, which is why you're getting a much lighter product, in some ways even lightweight. Some aspects of Eye for an Eye border into the black-comedy sphere, and there's none of that slightly corny machismo you'll find in Kwak's films. What Kwak did was concentrate the story from an ensemble piece to something focusing strongly on its major players, and he tied together some of the impressive action pieces with some half-decent backstory. Sure, it's convoluted, some of its narrative elements take quite a leap of faith to believe (I'd say more, but then we'd venture into spoilers. Let's just say doing all that just to get even is a bit far fetched), and the investigation is a lot more interested in style and charisma than substance.
Yet, the whole experience is quite satisfying, in no small part because of the cast. Cha Seung-Won does his usual good job, playing a sort of slick evolution of his 리베라매 (Libera Me) villain, but it's Han Suk-Gyu who really sends the ball out of the park. He's always been a very good actor, ever since his early days on dramas like 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul) and 도전 (Challenge), before he moved stably to film starting with 1995's 닥터봉 (Dr. Bong). But there was always a certain aura around him, of the gentleman with the suave voice, in some ways the same aura which might hurt Lee Seon-Gyun's career in the long run, if he doesn't take an U-turn somewhere down the line. Sure, his career had its gritty moments in between, such as Lee Chang-Dong's 초록 물고기 (Green Fish) or Yang Yoon-Hyun's 텔 미 썸딩 (Tell Me Something), but until his return in 2002 with 이중간첩 (Double Agent) - a flawed but marvelously tasty serving of realpolitik - you'd always feel this man had so much more potential. I don't know what changed between 1999 and 2002 for him, but he's gone from an underachiever who always does rather well to one of the most exciting 40-something actors in Korea.
This is not only interesting for what concerns Han Suk-Gyu's career alone. Han is in fact a good example of someone from the old guard, that is the group of stars who led Chungmuro's industrialization during the mid-to-late 90s, who successfully transformed in a new environment. Of course you have cases like Jeon Do-Yeon and Song Kang-Ho shining in both eras, but take a look at the career paths of Park Joong-Hoon, Shim Eun-Ha, Shim Hye-Jin and similar 90s stars and you'll understand the difference. Many of the films Han starred in between 1995 and 1999 became flagbearers of Korea's increasingly impressive domestic market share, from Green Fish to the wonderful 접속 (The Contact), from the cult classic 넘버3 (No. 3) to 8월의 크리스마스 (Christmas in August). But the 2000s have become the era of blockbusters, the days when selling 1 million tickets nationwide is not cause for celebration, but perhaps just the spark igniting the investors' anger. Check Han's career transition, and you'll find he hasn't starred in a single blockbuster after 1999's 쉬리 (Shiri).
What he's done instead is transform himself, doing things he had never tried before - sageuk with 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest), for starters. He made the most daring, and still best choice of his career, starring in Im Sang-Soo's masterful 그때 그사람들 (The President's Last Bang), and even got a little nastier, in A Bloody Aria. The Han Suk-Gyu of Eye for an Eye is just another proof of his evolution. The foul-mouthed, quick-tempered, gray-haired Baek Sung-Chan is part Moon-Jae from A Bloody Aria, part Kang Cheol-Jung from 공공의 적 (Public Enemy), with the possible exception of being quite the snappy dresser, unlike the previous two. I never thought I'd see Han Suk-Gyu grab a transvestite's cojones (played with great mojo by Lee Byung-Joon. The transvestite, that is) and scream in his face in a film, but I guess it was about time. It's almost as if he's making fun of the first part of his career, completing with histrionics a circle which started with suave, night radio-like vibes. One of the best performances of the year, and another fun character added to Han's second career.
Fans of Kwak's past works expecting more of the same might be disappointed. This, after all, is a much more bombastic, almost Hollywood-like cat and dog chase, with a quirky twist at the end. There is almost none of the machismo of his films, replaced instead by energy created by editing, action and the actors' performances. The car chases look like something out of a Yang Yoon-Hyun film, Bang Jun-Seok's score keeps a strong pace, and despite a rather obvious plot (read the title, English or Korean, and you'll more or less get the point), the film never loses its audience until the end. It's nothing that makes stylistic statements as strong as Choi Dong-Hoon's films, it doesn't have the nostalgia and pathos of Kwak's own work, but it's a pretty satisfying way to spend 100 minutes. It's also, I might say, one of the few nice stories of the year. Changing director mid-flight rarely does any good to films, but this time it worked. Eye for an Eye is certainly not great, but it's good enough, it made good money, and it showed Kwak can step out of his Busan trappings if he really wishes to. In a year where boring virtues plague way too many films, its interesting vices are a much needed breeze of fresh air.....
눈에는 눈 이에는 이 (Eye for an Eye)
Director: 곽경택 (Kwak Kyung-Taek), 안권태 (Ahn Kwon-Tae)
Screenplay: 김동우 (Kim Dong-Woo)
D.P.: 홍경표 (Hong Kyung-Pyo)
Music: 방준석 (Bang Jun-Seok)
Produced by: Taewon Entertainment
Int'l Sales: Finecut
101 Minutes, 35mm 2.35:1 Color
CAST: 한석규 (Han Suk-Gyu), 차승원 (Cha Seung-Won), 송영창 (Song Young-Chang), 이병준 (Lee Byung-Joon), 김지석 (Kim Ji-Seok), 정인기 (Jung In-Gi), 손병욱 (Son Byung-Wook), 이재구 (Lee Jae-Gu), 김종만 (Kim Jong-Man), 권혁풍 (Kwon Hyuk-Poong), 임성규 (Im Sung-Gyu), 김윤태 (Kim Yoon-Tae), 김해숙 (Kim Hae-Sook / CAMEO), 전무송 (Jeon Mu-Song / CAMEO)