‘The Shameless’ (‘Mu-roe-han’): Cannes Review

Star power salvages an average take on film noir.

Cannes prize-winner Jeon Do-yeon returns to the Croisette as a hardboiled nightclub madam in Korean helmer Oh Seung-uk’s noir-inspired romantic drama.

While boasting all the conventional stylistic trappings of film noir, The Shameless is that rarest of beasts in which the femme fatale – here played by the ever-bankable Jeon Do-yeon - actually comes across more rounded and layered than the male anti-hero.

While boasting all the conventional stylistic trappings of film noir, The Shameless is that rarest of beasts in which the femme fatale – here played by the ever-bankable Jeon Do-yeon - actually comes across more rounded and layered than the male anti-hero. With heartthrob Kim Nam-gil’s turn as a jaded cop looking more bored than hardboiled, Jeon – here playing a nightclub hostess – is left to carry alone what should have been a taut two-hander.

Winner of Cannes’ Best Actress prize in 2007 for Secret Sunshine and a member of the competition jury last year, the Korean actress’ presence is perhaps the main reason The Shameless secured a berth in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes this year. While Kim’s fans at home might help propel the film toward box office success when it opens in South Korea on May 27, a harder international sell awaits.

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In his production notes, Oh explained how the title of his latest film points to the amorality he observes as a common trait in Korean men. And so it is that the film begins with a vivid portrayal of the behavior of Jae-gon (Kim), a detective who has no qualms beating up anyone to get the information he needs in tracking down murder suspect Jun-gil (Park Sung-woong).

As he terrorizes witnesses and informers, however, he in turn is shown as a victim of his own circumstances: struggling to recover from a broken marriage – he is seen eating and sleeping in his car and at public baths, and never shown at home – his difficulty paying alimony leads to him accept a bribe to change details of the case to protect the reputation of a tycoon linked to the killing.

Just as many a cynical lawman have done in noirs past, Jae-gon softens as he comes into contact with Jun-gil’s girlfriend Hye-kyung (Jeon), a failed stocks investor now working as a madam at a sleazy dive called Bar Macau. Starting off by bugging her flat and then digging through her trash for clues about the fugitive’s whereabouts, Jae-gon finally decides to go undercover and actually lands a job as her floor manager, a move fuelled by lust and destined to end in tragedy.

This extraordinary leap resembles the similarly incredible twist in Oh’s previous film Kilimanjaro (2000), in which a disillusioned detective takes on the identity of his dead mobster twin brother. Just as this reinvention trope failed to gel back then, the same happens in The Shameless: casting aside the logical problems brought about by the act – the notoriously brutal Jae-gon is hardly a faceless foot-soldier in the force – his ability to drastically alter his personality is hardly convincing. Given the inconsistent characterization here, Kim’s simplistic turn as Jae-gon is perhaps inevitable.

It’s here that Jeon steps in to make her mark. Never resorting to simply playing up Hye-kyung as a vessel of crass sexuality, the actress unveils all the contradictions buried within her character’s confused psyche. Undeniably the real star of the show (with a stunning array of on-screen outfits to boot), she gives a reliably nuanced performance that makes everything around her pale in comparison.

Production companies: Sanai Pictures in a CGV Arthouse presentation
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Nam-gil, Park Sung-woong
Director and screenwriter: Oh Seung-uk
Producer: Kuk Su-ran, Sam Chi, Han Jae-duk
Executive producer: Simon Lee
Director of photography: Kang Kuk-hyun
Production designer: Park Il-hyun, Lee Jae-sung
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa
Music composer: Cho Young-wuk
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
International Sales: CJ Entertainment
In Korean
No rating; 118 minutes

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