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Cold Eyes (Gamshijadeul): Toronto Review

Cold Eyes

The Bottom Line

A state-of-the-art Korean cop thriller plays a tight, exciting game with genre rules and high tech.

Venue:

Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 12, 2013

Casting:

Sol Kyung-gu, Han Hyo-joo, Jung Woo-sung, Lee Jun-ho Lee, Jin Kyung, Simon Yam

Directors:

Cho Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo

Screenwriters:

Cho Ui-seok, Kin-Yee Au, Nai-Hoi Yau

Surveillance cameras over Seoul fill the screen with hypertech in an edge-of-seat remake of "Eye in the Sky."

What’s not to like in this mile-a-minute remake of the 2007 Hong Kong thriller Eye in the Sky, in which a crack police team challenges a brilliant, invincible criminal mastermind? It may be the oldest cop plot in the world, but the sheer display of technique on screen transmutes the familiar lump of coal to gold. With filmmaking this good and tech work this innovative, the only question is when Asian genre films are going to take over the rest of the world. This is one title that could have a shot at advancing out of Korean language markets and film festivals. Co-produced with Canada’s Spackman Entertainment, Cold Eyes has had over 5 million admissions since its domestic release in July.  

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The pre-title sequence is a complete story in itself, a cops-and-robbers stakeout on the subway and streets that forces the viewer to decide who’s shadowing who. It offers a fast intro to the main characters: police chief Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) and his team, a pretty, tom-boyish young rookie whose code name is Piglet (Han Hyo-joo), the happy young cop Squirrel (Lee Jun-ho) and the smooth jacket-and-tie criminal James (Jung Woo-sung) who happens to be passing by. He will be the center of attention for the rest of the film, but at the moment it’s just a drill to see how observant Piglet is. Her round eyes fix on the chief as she recalls almost everything she saw in precise police jargon. “Remember everything,” Hwang advises her. "You're hired."

Headquarters of the Special Crime Unit specialized in surveillance is CSI: Miami on steroids, with enough futuristic electronic tracking devices to run a large spaceship. Yet co-directors Cho Ui-seok andKim Byung-seo never linger on the fancy production design and it will take a quick-eyed viewer to even estimate how many police work in the open office space. Attention will be distracted by Lee, the chief of chiefs, played by the beautiful Jin Kyung as an elegant, cold-as-ice decision maker. Refreshingly, there are no idiots on the team (the one apparent goof-off turns out to be a geek genius) and no personal animosities; no one has family problems or even a family. They work as one extraordinarily efficient team that has all of Seoul under its control via those omnipresent surveillance cameras that have cropped up on every street corner. They also control every police car, streetlight and train in Gotham, making criminal activity very tough indeed.

Enter James (Jung Woo-sung, who co-starred with Michelle Yeoh in the tony costumer Reign of Assassins) standing straight-backed on the roof of tall buildings armed with a good deal of technology himself. He stages a huge explosion in a parking lot to decoy the cops while his men rob a bank. Refreshingly, there are idiots among the crooks, but James puts them out of their misery quickly with a twist of the knife and a glare. The cold eyes don’t belong just to the spy cameras.

Watching this cleverly scripted gambit takes some keen observation on the audience’s part, too. To call the film fast-paced is an understatement and devil catch the hindmost if you blink or look away. Like the number puzzle Sudoku that everyone’s playing, it’s a brain game that demands the viewer figure things out just to keep pace with the plot.

The cops are witty and deadpan, naming a suspect “Thirsty Hippo” the minute their equipment pinpoints his oversize figure off a surveillance camera.  Even without backstories, they show a human side, as when Piglet disobeys the rules to prevent a double murder she happens across. Hwang and Lee are disapproving but perhaps secretly they agree with her. The whole cast is disciplined and extremely good in getting just enough character across to grab sympathy without cluttering up the plot.

Cinematographer Yeo Kyung-bo joins co-director Kim Byung-seo, who is a noted D.o.P. making his directing bow, on the film’s spectacular camerawork, including overhead zooms and tracking shots that make a simple car chase and pile-up of police cars on a city overpass seem like something new.

Editor Shin Min-kyungis a major player here with lightning fast cross-cutting that keeps the eyes bouncing around the screen like a tennis ball. The music, credited to Dalpalan and Jang Young-gyu, is unforgiving in pumping up the tension and keeping it at just the right pitch.

Venue:  Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 12, 2013
An Opus Pictures and New presentation of a Zip Cinema production in association with Spackman Equities Group
Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Han Hyo-joo, Jung Woo-sung, Lee Jun-ho Lee, Jin Kyung, Simon Yam
Directors: Cho Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo
Screenwriters: Cho Ui-seok, Kin-Yee Au, Nai-Hoi Yau
Producer: Eugene Lee
Executive producers: Lee Tae-hun, Kim Woo-taek, Stephen Ng
Directors of photography: Kim Byung-seo, Yeo Kyung-bo
Production designer: Cho Hwa-sung
Music: Dalpalan, Jang Young-gyu
Editor: Shin Min-kyung
Sales: Opus Pictures 

No rating, 118 min.