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Sometimes recalling Memories of Murder and sometimes the older Tell Me Something (a film that was on the crest of the so-called Korean wave in 1999) writer-director Son Young-ho’s spit-shined debut The Deal is perhaps best described as defiantly entertaining. Despite coupling a hideously nihilistic worldview with some of the most ludicrous police shenanigans this side of Fox’s The Following, Son’s serial killer thriller nonetheless has its moments. The Deal was a moderate hit at home in Korea, where it knocked Kingsman off its box office perch, and niche distributors that have found success in the last few years with this kind of bleak revenge thriller would do well to check it out. Spots in genre film festivals are likely a given and it should play well regionally in Asia, where the Korean brand still sells tickets even without big stars.
When 10 young women (naturally) have been brutally murdered in Seoul, homicide detective Tae-su (Kim Sang-Kyoung, The Tower) and his partner Ki-suk (Jo Jae-yoon) are feeling the pressure to crack the case. While out running down a lead one day in the torrential rain—part of the killer’s MO—Tae-su has a hunch (it’s always a hunch for veteran cops) that a hit and run they’re checking out is far more sinister. His “Spidey senses” are correct: the driver, Kang-chun (Park Sung-woong) turns out to be the sociopath they’re looking for. Just as Tae-su is about to start celebrating in the precinct, the bombshell goes off. Kang-chun’s last victim was Tae-su’s sister. And they can’t find her body. And she was pregnant.
For the first 30 minutes The Deal is a relatively engrossing crime thriller even if it never quite transcends serviceable. As Tae-su’s brother-in-law Seung-hyun (Kim Sung-kyun, Hwayi) grapples with his loss, Son manages to fit some genuine pathos into the story, squeezing some emotion out of little gestures (like a bowl of rice at the third, empty dinner setting). The film isn’t a mystery; we know Kang-chun is the killer from minute one and for the first act, it feels like Son and co-writer-producer An Young-jin (Spellbound) are making an attempt at exploring the impact of violence on average lives. That ends soon enough.
Three years go by and Kang-chun sits on death row. Tae-su is now a daily boozer and Kang-chun, has evidently become one part Terminator thanks to daily prison workouts. When a local gangster turns up dead and the lead suspect turns out to be Seung-hyun, the film abruptly switches from serial killer drama to conspiracy revenge thriller, a ludicrously convoluted one at that. Son clearly has a strong grasp on visuals and also demonstrates a degree of skill with action set pieces rare for a first-time filmmaker. A suitably nasty fight—reminiscent of Eastern Promises—and his rain-slicked nightscapes in particular stand out.
But by the same token, Son loses control over the narrative and his leads’ performances. Everything is heightened: the rain is a constant downpour, Kim’s preferred method of relaying grief, anger and frustration is through histrionic toothy snarls and eyebrows up around the hairline, a weepy mistress has mascara all over her face, Tae-su’s sister was not only pregnant but also dressed in pink frills and so on. When part of Seung-hyun’s master plan dawns on Tae-su it elicits less “Wow!” and more “Duh!” A classic string-heavy score (by Koo Ja-Wan and An Hyun-Jin) and typically professional technical specs help the vile worldview go down easier; Son clearly thinks the worst of human nature but he could be given props for keeping the characters true to who they are. The Deal serves as a diverting and functional stop gap until Park Chan-wook gets back to work.
Production company: Cineguru, Miin Pictures
Cast: Kim Sang-Kyoung, Kim Sung-kyun, Park Sung-woong, Jo Jae-yoon, Gi Ju-bong
Director: Yoo Seung-young
Screenwriter: An Young-jin, Son Young-ho
Producer: An Young-jin
Executive producer: Kim Young-hoon
Director of photography: Lee Jong-yoel
Production designer: Kim Hee-jin
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-Hwa
Editor: Shin Min-Kyung
Music: Koo Ja-Wan, An Hyun-Jin
World sales: 9ers Entertainment
No rating, 103 minutes
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