Busan 2023 Review: RANSOMED, Overseas Korean Action-Comedy Bromance Hits the Right Beats
Kim Seong-hun and Ha Jung-woo, the director-actor combo who gave us Tunnel, reunite for the second time on the winning buddy action-comedy Ransomed, the latest in a series of high-profile films based on recent real-life stories featuring Korean characters gallivanting in third world countries.
This very specific subgenre, which also includes Ryoo Seung-wan's Escape from Mogadishu, The Point Men and the Netflix series Narco-Saints, also with Ha, popped out of nowhere when all these projects were announced in late 2019. Later joining the cadre was the Choi Min-shik led Disney+ series Big Bet.
Ha plays Korean diplomat Lee Min-jun in the 1980s, who volunteers to engage in a daring plot to retrieve a fellow Korean diplomat, kidnapped in Lebanon 18 months earlier but yet to be released. Min-jun manages to negotiate a deal to free the man, but that's not even half the battle.
The real challenge is navigating the war-torn country and getting the man and himself out alive. By chance, he meets the unscrupulous Korean taxi driver Kim Pan-soo (Ju Ji-hoon of Kingdom, also directed by Kim) and together, but not always in harmony, they attempt to track down their compatriot.
Shooting in locations that had hitherto never been seen in Korean films, such as the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Jordan and Morocco, these Korean expat tentpoles are all loosely based on news items featuring Koreans overseas, mostly diplomats or criminals, who are mostly portrayed by middle-aged male stars.
Owing to the pandemic, which reared its ugly just as most of these projects went into production, the release dates of the titles have been staggered. Still awaiting release is Bogota with Song Joong-ki, but with no new projects on the horizons the ambitious genre appears to have been short-lived.
Shot on location in Morocco, shortly after Escape from Mogadishu and with some of the same crew, Ransomed shines as the best entry yet in what had been a frustrating collection of decent but old-fashioned films and drama series that couldn't quite match the promise of all their on and off-screen talent.
The recipe here is still a bit old-fashioned. There's the burgeoning Korean bromance, an almost complete lack of speaking female characters, and a sprinkle of patriotism, but it's delivered in a very pleasing package tempered with galvanizing humor and the brand of cause-and-effect mayhem that made Kim's second film A Hard Day such a treat. It's also filled with action, something sorely lacking in The Point Men earlier this year.
Following a series of less-than-stellar roles in the wake of 1987: When the Day Comes, Ha is back on form as the out-of-his-depth Min-jun. Enthusiastically placing himself front and center in the hopes of securing an overseas diplomatic posting, Min-jun winds up biting off more than he can chew. Ha ably portrays his transition from opportunist to low-key hero.
Pan-soo has fewer dimensions but, with the help of some flamboyant outfits, Ju also provides a charismatic turn. It's a similar part to the one he plays in this year's Cannes-screened disaster horror Project Silence, but he's less over-the-top here. Ju gels very well with Ha, which adds to the all-important bromance factor that brings the film home in its final act.
Ransomed can't avoid indulging in a smidge of melodrama and nationalism in its closing moments, but it's a small price to pay for this very worthwhile big-screen package.
- Seong Hun Kim
- Kim Jung-Yeon
- Jung-mi Yeo
- Burn Gorman
- Ha Jung-woo
- Ju Ji-hoon