‘Master’: Film Review
Ui-seok Jo’s high-stakes thriller stars ‘The Magnificent Seven’s’ Byung-hun Lee as a ruthless corporate con artist with high-level connections in South Korean politics.
Multilevel marketing companies have earned a sketchy reputation worldwide, due to their pyramidal organizational structure and payout schemes, but rarely have they been portrayed as ominously as the South Korean corporation at the center of Master. This timely financial thriller could benefit from a worldwide wave of dissatisfaction with elected officials and multinational corporations after topping the domestic box office over the Dec. 23 weekend.
As South Korea struggles through a major political scandal involving allegations of corporate malfeasance and high-level influence peddling that have led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, the obsessive commitment of Master’s anti-corruption investigator Kim Jae Myung (Dong-won Gang, A Violent Prosecutor) appears especially appropriate. Closing in on multilevel marketing operation One Network, Kim’s financial-crimes investigation targets CEO Jin Hyun-pil (Byung-hun Lee) for defrauding his company’s sales staff in order to line his own pockets, with the assistance of his young tech expert, Park Jang Goon (Woo-bin Kim, Twenty). Without sufficient hard evidence to convict Jin, however, Kim is forced to try recruiting Park by threatening him with arrest and offering a plea deal if he’ll turn over computer evidence and documents incriminating his boss.
Park finds it impossible to outmaneuver Kim’s combination of law-enforcement experience and legal expertise, so he agrees to implicate Jin by pilfering his boss’ ledger containing information on all of the cops, judges and politicians he routinely bribes to ignore One Network’s shady operations. With the contributions of thousands of investors at stake, Kim’s drive to bring down the company comes up against Jin’s ruthless business tactics when he liquidates the operation and disappears with $3 billion. Having failed to entrap Jin, Park goes into hiding and Kim receives a humiliating demotion, but the sudden reappearance of their rival six months later offers the pair another shot at bringing Jin to justice.
After this first hour of running time, director Ui-seok Jo and co-writer Hyun-deok Kim then reboot the plot and set their characters loose to pursue one another around the slums of Manila, Philippines, for the remainder of the film as Kim attempts to finally collar Jin, whatever the cost to his own reputation and career. Master continues the trend of recent South Korean anti-establishment thrillers that questions and deconstructs the authority and competence of domestic law enforcement, corporations and political elites, but also echoes a broader wave of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo that’s challenging conventional leadership from Washington to Brussels and around the world.
Jo and Kim amplify the perceived menace of corporations like One Network and both the acumen and the dedication of law enforcement for dramatic purposes, lending the narrative a recognizably melodramatic edge. A succession of twists and double-crosses among the characters keeps the plot simmering at an occasionally overheated pace, however, eventually stretching credibility as the manhunt for Jin expands overseas.
Remaining aloof at the center of all of these machinations, Lee’s Jin character basks in the cult of personality surrounding his status as One Network’s CEO, keeping one step ahead of the authorities and only interacting with his staff to resolve a crisis or consummate a crooked deal. His determined disengagement provides the opportunity for Kim to stand out as the company’s conflicted traitor, Park, who’s never sure where he stands with his boss or his law-enforcement handlers, but still risks exposure by scheming at double-crossing them all. Following his role as a con man on the opposite side of the law in A Violent Prosecutor, Gang’s dull performance as the lead investigator drags on both the pace and the tone of Master, which is far too procedural in the first half and not nearly manic enough in the second.
In his fourth feature, Jo demonstrates cool control of tone and visual style throughout, but the film is often so deterministically plotted that a sense of creative detachment hangs over far too many scenes, leaving an impression that the filmmakers may sometimes be more interested in making grand statements than in engaging interest.
Production company: Zip Cinema
Distributor: CJ Entertainment America
Cast: Dong-won Gang, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-bin Kim, Dal-su Oh, Ji-won Uhm
Director: Ui-seok Jo
Screenwriters: Ui-seok Jo, Hyun-deok Kim
Producer: Eugene Lee
Executive producer: Tae-sung Jeong
Director of photography: Yoo Yok
Production designer: Elhen Park
Costume designer: Sang-kyung Cho
Editor: Min-kyung Shin
Music: Young-kyu Jang