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The rise of the angry and vocal far right is the background for an exploration of intangible rage, alienation and anonymity in Beaten Black and Blue, writer-director Kim Soohyun’s first film in seven years. Best known for his 2004 absurdist family drama So Cute and the lesbian fantasy-romance Ashamed (Life Is Peachy in the U.S.), Kim opts for a vaguely realist tone in his black-ish comedy about a so-called keyboard warrior and a bitter old codger who bond over their mutual disdain for anything remotely left wing. Timely — and strangely universal these days — as Beaten may be, this is purely festival material, though its currency should serve it well on the circuit.
The film’s dominant milieu is the intersection of online trolling, radical politics, porn and stunted sexuality, where feelings of invisibility can give rise to hate speech and violence. Kyohwan (Koo Kyohwan) is an indecisive outsider with no significant education, who feels democracy has let him down. He’s a member of the You and I Best online community, the familiar space where the disaffected can vent their frustrations, unseen and unidentified. Jung-soo (Dong Bangwoo, a pseudonym for veteran actor Myeong Kye-nam) fancies himself a patriot, and sees communists around every corner. He expects some kind of recognition from the Ministry of Veteran’s Affairs (why is never clear), though he’s abusive and confrontational. The two meet at an anti-left rally and soon form a grandfather-grandson type of relationship, handy considering Kyohwan has abandoned his family for a dorm, and Jung-soo’s actual grandson is more interested in studying for exams than his grandpa’s potential accolades.
Onscreen titles pop up with regularity to fill in viewers unfamiliar with Korean sociopolitical history on the basics, as well as fill in the blanks on current Korean radical groups that lurk on the Internet. Kyohwan’s You and I Best is loosely based on the anti-North, democracy-mocking Daily Best, and the scandal-plagued Korea Parent Federation, a group of seniors pining for the good old days of dictator Park Chung-hee (father of current, impeached president Park Geun-hye) and allegedly funded by pro-business cabal is the basis for Jung-soo’s Parents Commando.
That does little to help truly clarify Kyohwan’s and Jung-soo’s motives and even less for the aimless narrative, which crawls toward the duo’s inevitable explosion. The meandering tone is distracting more than contemplative, and could have been tightened up to increase the film’s overall impact. Still, Kim is on to something with Beaten, but even with its robust runtime, he never really digs beneath the surface to reveal what makes the angry duo tick, keeping them at a distance. More often than not, Kyohwan and Jung-soo are simply reprehensible rather than two people worth understanding.
There’s a lot of compelling material simmering beneath Beaten Black and Blue’s main narrative that stays there in favor of two moderately interesting losers, and it’s littered with peripheral characters that are set up to be meaningful but remain firmly on the sidelines: Kyohwan’s “native” English speaking phone instructor Tiffany (Jeon Yeobeen), Park Myeongsin’s retired prostitute Sook-hee, the “Pagoda Madonna” who resents the impact the departure of US Forces had on her trade, and a left-leaning radio DJ who becomes an object of Kyohwan’s obsession (Kim Sanghyon, Ashamed). Sook-hee and the DJ in particular deserve more thought than has been put into them, odd considering Kim’s demonstrated ability to write nuanced female characters.
Performances are uniformly strong, and never teeter into hyper-theatricality; technical specs are polished if perfunctory.
Production company: Indieplug, Dong Bu Nanbal Corp.
Cast: Dong Bangwoo, Koo Kyohwan, Kim Sanghyon, Park Myeongsin, Jeon Yeobeen, Kim Jonggu, Kim Joongki, Kim Seohee, Park Hyogeun, Yoo Sangheul
Director: Kim Soohyun
Screenwriter: Kim Soohyun, Moon Lee, Koo Kyohwan, Park Chulhee, Lee Youngjoon
Producer: Choi Injun
Executive producer: Lee Choong-jik
Director of photography: Cho Yongkyu
Production designer: Hwang Bikin
Costume designer: Yang Heehwa
Editor: Suh Seonghyun
Music: Kim Yeoungseok, Ryu Jipyeong
World sales: Indieplug
No rating, 131 minutes
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