Bottom Line: Unconventional and ambitious revenge thriller that only flirts with greatness.Pusan International Film Festival
BUSAN, South Korea -- With the rise to prominence of Park Chan-Wook and the widespread belief that the revenge genre is "owned" by Korean filmmakers, it's no surprise that Korean-Japanese filmmaker Choi Yang-Il (or Sai Yoichi, his Japanese name) has chosen that genre for his Korean debut. But "Soo" is only a slightly better than average actioner with pretensions of genre revisionism the industry has already done better.
Distributors that showed interest in Kim Ji-Woon's superior "A Bittersweet Life" will probably take a look at "Soo," so it may find a place in genre and Asian-themed festivals. An overseas release may be a bit too much to expect, but the film should travel within Asia on the strength of Korea's reputation for this kind of ultra-violent thriller.
Brothers Tae-soo and Tae-jin run afoul of local mob boss Gu Yang-Hwan (Mun Seong-Geun) as kids, which results in being Tae-jin being dragged into Gu's gang. Now estranged adults, Tae-soo (Ji Jin-Hee) has transformed himself into famed contract killer Soo, and Tae-jin (also Ji) has joined the police force. Soo's chance at reunion with his long-lost brother is crushed when Tae-jin is gunned down before his eyes. Assuming Tae-jin's identity, Soo steps into his life in order to take revenge for his murder. Bloody mayhem ensues.
Choi -- as Sai -- boasts a diverse filmography, which includes the violent and powerful Kitano Takeshi vehicle "Blood and Bones" (and the sappy puppy drama "Quill"), and comparisons to Park's trilogy are sure to abound. However, Park relied on visual flair and dark humor; Choi goes for messy realism and stoic brutality. Blanketed with a muddy veneer from start to finish (Kim Sung-Bok's gritty, atmospheric photography is a highlight), Soo's physical world is as black as his motives.
There are few flashes of the subtle characterization that defined "Blood," and there isn't enough backstory to make us care about either of the brothers. How Soo became an assassin remains a mystery throughout, and what drove Tae-jin to a career in law enforcement after a stint in organized crime is never addressed. Evidently he's saintly enough to warrant bloody revenge, but that's a leap viewers are forced to make. Ji is competent but not spectacular as the twins, though he's given little to work with.
The driving factor here is haphazard chaos. Every fight is feral and personal (no guns here), and the concluding showdown between Soo and Gu plays out in near silence: Every grunt, tear and crack rings loudly.
Being a typically macho film, Kang Seong-Yeon as Mi-Na, Tae-jin's girlfriend, is more plot device than character: No identity switch story would be complete without a suspicious spouse or lover. Kang is an element that is introduced and then left to dangle while Choi pursues more gruesome, though unsatisfying, interests.
Cinema Service/CJ Entertainment presents a Triz Club Co. Ltd. production
Director: Choi Yang-Il
Screenwriters: Lee Seung-Hwan, Lee Jun-Il, Choi Yang-Il Based on the comic by: Shin Young-Woo
Producers: Hwang In-Tae, Shin Bum-Soo
Executive producer: Kim In-Soo
Director of photography: Kim Sung-Bok
Production designer: Cho Hwa-Sung
Music: lee Byoung-Woo
Costume designer: Kim Yoo-Sun
Editor: Lee Eun-Soo
Soo/Tae-Jin: Ji Jin-Hee
Kang Mi-Na: Kang Seong-Yeon
Gu Yang-Hwan: Mun Seong-Geun
Detective Nam: Lee Gi-Young
Song: Jo Gyeong-Hwan
Killer: Oh Man-Seok
Running time -- 124 minutes
No MPAA rating