Fantasia 2022 Review: ON THE LINE, A Voice Phishing Action Thriller From Korea
As the world gets smaller and technology gets more advanced, scamming has become big business for industrious criminals around the world. Director Kim Gok’s On the Line takes dissects and attacks the growing voice phishing schemes that have destroyed so many lives. It’s an unusual action fueled take on what is essentially a underground call center business, not the environment usually associated with gun fights and stunt extravaganzas, but Gok’s film – for the most part – makes it work.
What would you do if a phishing scam ruined your life? If you’re Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han), an ex-cop whose wife has just been taken for their family’s entire savings, there is only one answer. You take the whole operation down by any means necessary. One day while Seo-joon is at work, his wife receives a series of phone calls that he has been arrested after an incident at his construction site. A rapid-fire sequence of lawyers, police, and co-workers inform her that the only way to keep him from going to prison is a legal maneuver that will cost $70,000, but it must be delivered immediately in order to halt the process.
Desperate to save her husband, and without any means to contact him, she gathers up the money and delivers it to the desired account. Soon after, a very much not in jail Seo-joon gets in touch with her and they discover that they’ve been scammed out of their life’s savings. And as if things weren’t bad enough, they weren’t the only victims, it turns out that Seo-joon’s boss was also hit, draining the construction job’s entire payroll and leaving dozens of workers in the lurch.
Seo-joon used to be a cop with a reputation for a quick temper, and he isn’t one to take offenses like this sitting down. However, it seems that his old department is loathe to get involved because they are going after a bigger target, and digging in on these relatively minor scams might upset the ongoing investigation. That’s not going to work for him, so he decides to go vigilante on the problem, and the fireworks begin.
There’s always a bit of fun to be had when a film takes what seems like a sedentary premise like phone phishing scams, and injects a bit of adrenaline into the process. The premise of On the Line doesn’t exactly scream, “action”, but in practice it’s actually quite a lot of fun and a deep dive into a largely unexplored criminal underworld ruled by colorful criminals operating massive organizations for profit.
Seo-joon is a ball of intense fire in the film, and he’s amply complemented by a deliriously flamboyant villain in Gwak (Kim Mu-yeol), one of the higher up in the scam’s hierarchy. When out hero infiltrates the call center in an effort to bring it down from the inside, he meets Gwak, immediately recognizing him as the man directly responsible for his family’s fate and sets his sights on destroying him and the rest. Whereas Byun John’s performance is stern and calculating, Kim Mu-yeol is the kind of giddy villain who takes pleasure in watching the world burn, as long has he’s got a stack of cash in his hand.
If you’ve seen a reasonable number of Korean action thrillers, you pretty much know what you’re in for here in terms of pacing and set pieces. They like to go big, and they are damn good at it. On the Line has fun manufacturing circumstances in which our characters are pushed to their limits and forced into brutal fights, dangerous gunplay, and sadistic tortures. Writer Bae Young-ik gives the actors a lot to work with, and the leading duo make a meal of every minute on screen.
On the Line treads similar thematic ground with Netflix’s worldwide phenomenon, Squid Game. Both utilize crushing debt and destitution to make a larger point about Korean society, as well as exploring the lengths to which desperate people will go to get their lives back. It’s bleak, but Bae and Gok leave room for laughs here and there among the worker bees in Gwak’s employ, which helps keep the film moving.
There is a certain level of quality expected from mainstream Korean thrillers, and On the Line definitely hits that mark. Gok’s thriller is largely effective in getting its point across, and even though squanders a bit of momentum at the climax, it wasn’t enough of a drag to leave a bad taste. It’s a surprisingly action-packed adventure through a world that an audience wouldn’t expect to find either action or adventure. While far from perfect, it’s an excellent distraction that might inspire you look at those “unknown number” calls with a bit more caution than you may have before.
On the Line
- Gok Kim
- Sun Kim
- Yo-Han Byun
- Mu-Yeol Kim
- Park Myeong-hoon