Anyone feeling put off by the presidential candidates’ rough tactics during the current election cycle may find only limited consolation in the depiction of certifiably criminal political practices depicted in Asura: The City of Madness. Veteran writer-director Kim Sung-soo’s darkly cynical crime thriller broke records for an R-rated film at the South Korean box office last month, so fans of explosive Oldboy-style violence may take notice in wider release, but the onscreen mayhem could prove overwhelming for ordinary moviegoers.
While South Korea is said to suffer from its share of corruption, Kim couldn’t find a real-life situation egregious enough to match his ambitions, so he created the fictional city of Annam, where economic redevelopment projects targeting aging infrastructure are a consistent source of graft money for cleverly corrupt mayor Park Sungbae (Hwang Jung-min). Relying on the fearsome intimidation tactics of Han (Jung Woo-sung), a police detective chronically on the take, Mayor Park begins preparations for a lucrative new development initiative along with his cronies on the city council while fighting an election-fraud investigation. After Han succeeds in eliminating a key witness, the Mayor is absolved, but lingering evidence and questions concerning the unexplained death of a police officer cast further suspicion on both Park and Han.
Han’s plan to quit the police force and work full-time for Park gets derailed by the ensuing internal affairs investigation and the sudden appearance of Kim (Kwak Do-won), an ambitious local prosecutor who’s intent on blackmailing Han to expose Park. Kim aggressively pushes the cop to ask Park leading questions and record his responses in the hopes of compromising the mayor. Han tries to buy some time by persuading his partner Sunmo (Ju Ji-hoon) to stand in as Park’s enforcer and the younger cop jumps at the opportunity to get on the take, proving himself even more adept than his mentor. Caught between his ruthless patron and the questionable deployment of the justice system, Han is forced to assess the advisability of picking sides or quickly devising a viable exit strategy.
Kim returns to familiar territory with Asura, after making Beat (1997) and City of the Rising Sun (1999), both gangster movies featuring Jung. The film also follows in a growing series of features concerned with both politicians’ and law enforcement’s abuse of power, including Lee Il-hyung’s piquantly titled A Violent Prosecutor, starring Hwang. Whether South Korean politics are as fatally internecine as depicted here, the film takes as its reference point the quarrelsome Buddhist asura demigods, whose disputes could hardly be more cataclysmic than the strife depicted in Kim’s consistently bleak script.
Although at times these conflicts approach cartoonish extremes, Hwang makes a truly inspired professional criminal whose manic cruelty appears almost boundless. When Mayor Park isn’t enjoying the spectacle of his opponents getting beaten to a pulp, he’s reveling in the psychological manipulation that precedes these predictable assaults. Temperamentally, Han presents a contrast to Park, displaying a more subdued and focused facade in his quest for power and retaliation, but the two remain more alike than not, a similarity confirmed by Jung’s intensely focused performance.
Kim almost exclusively favors nighttime and interior settings, with the notable exception of a tense car chase that concludes with Han nearly consumed by the explosion of a methamphetamine-laden truck. Fight scenes are staged with brutal directness and relentless energy in an interminable series of beatings, shootings and more creatively inspired assaults. Director of photography Lee Mo-gae paints the screen in smeared palettes of blue, black and gray, playing off the hopeless desperation of the characters.
Distributor: CJ Entertainment
Production company: Sanai Pictures
Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Hwang Jung-min, Ju Ji-hoon, Kwak Do-won, Jung Man-sik
Director-writer: Kim Sung-soo
Producer: Han Jae-dukk
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung
Director of photography: Lee Mo-gae
Production designer: Jang Geun-yeong
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Lee Jae-jin
Not rated, 136 minutes