Running Turtle -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Lee Yeon-woo's "Running Turtle" sets a flabby, ne'er-do-well cop on a hunt for a ruthless fugitive with invincible fighting skills, in a scenario akin to the turtle's race against the hare in Aesop's fable. Not in any rush to cut to the chase, this grassroots action-comedy rambles on about the protagonist's domestic woes and endless screw-ups, but packs a wallop in the final showdown.

The film is a celebration of perseverance, or pure macho pig-headedness. It counts on the audience's sympathy for the underdog, and the Koreans certainly rallied around it, driving domestic boxoffice to about $13 million in a month. It won't necessarily work such wonders abroad though.

Detective Jo Sung-pil is a small potato in a small police precinct. A sloppy loser who's happier hanging out with petty crooks, with no qualms about taking a cut from them, he invites disdain and pity. Leading man Kim Yoon-suk, still hot from starring in "The Chaser," gives the role a softened edge.

Cash-strapped after being suspended for a misdemeanor and afraid to tell his wife, who is as understanding as a fire-spitting dragon, he steals her savings to gamble on a bull-butting match. The bull he bets on turns out to be a dark horse that wins a king's ransom. Unfortunately, his bookie is robbed by Song Gi-tae (Choung Kyung-ho), the most wanted fugitive in the country.

With his squad disowning him and his low life friends giving half-assed support, each attempt to catch Song lands Jo in greater humiliation. Still he persists. The raging bulls are a metaphor for the horn locking between Jo and Song. Their final mano-a-mano actually is slung out in the bull ring, and is edited dynamically to release all the pent-up energy that Jo has been holding in, justifying earlier lulls in pacing.

Although the film bills itself as a comedy, Yee is not out to get belly laughs. Even the supporting cast of spineless cops and hick gangsters are not treated as caricatures. Moreover, his description of Jo's family life is uncomfortably gritty and rather sad. In a nuanced scene, Jo discovers holes in his wife's underpants when he tries to get frisky. There is a long pause before he turns away, and it remains ambiguous whether he is turned off sexually, or whether he is ashamed of being such a useless breadwinner.

Where the film falters is in the image of Song, who is rather bland as a second lead. Looking like a member of a boy band rather than a lethal martial artist, he does not have enough charisma to make a subplot about a young punk who hero-worships him work.

Technical credits and shooting style are both plain, but appropriate for the evocation of shoddy small town life.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Korean Cinema Today

Sales: Showbox/Mediaplex Inc.
Production: Cine2000
Cast: Kim Yoon-suk, Choung Kyung-ho
Director-screenwriter: Lee Yeon-woo
Producer: Lee Choon-yun
Director of photography: Cho Yong-gyu
Production designer: Hong Ju-hui
Music: Jang Youngkyu, Lee Byung-hoon
Editor: Lee Jin, Choe Min-yeong
No rating, 117 minutes
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