Those who've seen the South Korean indie films I Am Trash and/or Dirty Romance might not recognize that the same director, Lee Sang-woo, is behind a new movie that begins like a very traditional, very conventional Korean melodrama.
Oh, what surprises lie in wait!
While it's true that Speed looks like a much slicker movie than his previous work -- greater production values and more polished performances quickly assert themselves -- director Lee is still more interested in the sometimes deranged, sometimes victimized characters who populate the movie than straightforward narrative rhythms.
The opening scenes establish four life long friends reaching the conclusion of their school days. They are living, breathing stereotypes: the dreamy-looking ladies' man, the nerd, the athlete, and the truly outré kid, the one who's in a secret relationship with his friend's mother. The four friends are also suffering the harsh thumb of Mr. Park, a mean-spirited teacher who is having an affair with one of his students, whom he has impregnated. Mr. Park is a big believer in corporal punishment; the boys are big believers in sticking up for one another.
The school scenes are breezy and punchy, moving at a staccato beat. These boys are not losers; they have bright futures ahead of them, once they figure out what they want to do. The movie picks up a few years later, and Gurim, the dreamy-looking high school student, has become Gurim, pop star. But right now he's more like a one-hit wonder, and remains loyal to his buddies.
The other three have not enjoyed the same kind of overnight success; in some ways, they are still stuck in the past, wanting to move forward but not knowing exactly how to chart their paths. All four friends feel authentic to their age and place in life; their emotions remain ragged and overcharged, and their individual judgments are still erratic, which means they engage in foolish and/or foolhardy behavior that will surely have unpleasant consequences.
In a narrative sense, Speed is extremely messy. As it slowly ramps up into a deranged portrait of the young men, it becomes splattered with all the personality quirks and societal daggers one might expect from Lee Wang-soo. That includes a tendency toward extreme melodrama, which is very fitting for this material and these characters, and extreme perversity, which is contained in short bursts that, again, feel very much at home in this movie.
Speed represents a step forward for director Lee, making it abundantly clear that he is familiar with the trappings of modern-day Young Adult melodrama, while refusing to compromise the integrity of his characters, no matter how twisted they become.
(Full Disclosure: ScreenAnarchy contributing writer Pierce Conran is a credited producer on Speed.)