Twelve years after the success of Korean War comedy-drama Welcome to Dongmakgol, director Park Kwang-hyun is finally back in theaters with the action-thriller Fabricated City. A tale of gamers and conspiracies in modern Seoul, Park's latest presents itself as a high concept twist on a familiar story but quickly abandons its ambitions and proceeds as a gratingly by-the-numbers effort.
Unemployed Kwon Yoo spends his days in internet cafes as an ace gamer until one evening he is framed for a young woman's rape and murder in a motel room. The court case draws plenty of media attention and it doesn't take long for him to wind up behind bars for life. In prison, he has to learn to fight back as he faces daily beatings until one day he manages to escape. On the outside, he connects with his gamer friends, whom he's never met in real life, and tracks down the mysterious organization that may be responsible for his predicament.
Much of the marketing for Fabricated City surrounds the opening sequence, which sees Kwon Yoo as his character within a game, called the captain, as he and his friends enter a war zone in a city. Courtesy of top Korean VFX house Dexter Studios, the visual effects in this sequence are impressive, unlike the standard camerawork and editing that accompany them. Once Kwon Yoo is back in the real world we're down to standard thriller business. Visually, the film doesn't perk up again until a scene in the villain's secret control center, where a large room's floor essentially becomes a massive fancy iPad.
Following Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), director Park tried for years to mount the sci-fi martial arts project Kwon Bob but ultimately moved on to Fabricated City. While it teases a high concept it's a decidedly less ambitious sci-fi project, though some traces of a more interesting project do exist. Elements such as the maximum security prison built out of a mountain, and the black birthmark covering a third of a character's face indicate a more stylized alternate universe that for whatever reason wasn't fully brought to fruition.
TV star Ji Chang-wook takes on his first leading film role in Fabricated City, bringing along his good looks but not much else with him from the drama world. Though never bad, he never makes the role his own, and could easily have been swapped out with any number of young Korean actors. As his hacker friend, Shim Eun-kyung channels her robot character from last year's Sori: Voice from the Heart in a role that asks her character to communicate solely through her phone, even when beside who she's speaking to, and, despite her clear abilities, frustratingly turns her into a damsel in distress.
Though lacking imagination, Fabricated City's story moves clearly from start to finish and director Park does a decent job with several set pieces. However, take away the budget and all that remains is a mediocre middle-of-the-road Korean thriller.