'A Special Lady': Film Review | Hawaii 2017

A Special Lady Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of the Hawaii International Film Festival
Brutally confrontational.

Lee An-kyu’s debut feature is a gangland thriller about an internal struggle to dominate a ruthless criminal organization.

Far from a sentimental tribute or glowing testimonial, A Special Lady instead portrays a protagonist desperate to protect her hard-won rank in a sophisticated urban criminal organization from the rivals seeking to unseat her. Well-attuned to the character's particular personal and professional conflicts as a lone woman surrounded by threats on all sides, Lee An-kyu’s thriller delivers on all of the typical genre expectations without devolving into demeaning exploitation or worn parody.

Lee centers the action on Na (Kim Hye-soo), who now commands an army of thugs in service to boss Kim (Choi Moo-song) after working her way up from lowly bargirl to the second-ranking enforcer in the flashy gang known as the JG Group. She edges slightly closer to the throne after pulling off a masterful blackmail scheme, coercing cooperation from top business leaders and government officials after providing prostitutes at a secluded hotel and video-recording the subsequent activities. Prosecutor Choi (Lee Hui-joon) ends up particularly compromised, taken in by a schoolgirlish protege of Na's whom he somehow imagined was in love with him.

Na’s ascendency also chafes against the organization’s chief assassin and her former lover Lim (Lee Sun-kyun). Forming a secret alliance with Choi as much out of jealousy as venality, he plots to eliminate his boss so he can push Na aside and take over the organization to run things in collaboration with the prosecutor. Na’s momentum gets further diminished by the sudden arrival of her adult son, whom she sent overseas 20 years earlier to avoid any association with her sordid profession. He turns up again completely unaware of their relationship. Lim soon sees the opportunity to play him against Na, who is quickly surrounded on all sides by deadly adversaries. She's forced to fight or flee to save her son’s life, and probably her own as well.

Director Lee’s decision to conceal Na’s true menace until she’s backed into a corner and forced to defend her son cuts both ways. Her surprising lethality touches off several bravura action sequences, which get somewhat diminished by her complete commitment to safeguarding the child she barely knows, rather than protecting her position in the organization she’s personally fostered for 20 years.

Kim Hye-soo’s confident Na is more than a match for her male adversaries, once she reveals her true intentions to take them out at any cost. If he did a little more ass-kicking and much less whining, Lee Sun-kyun’s assassin Lim would be a whole lot more interesting, or at least menacing. In fact, Lee Hui-joon as prosecutor Choi appears way more threatening, stopping at nothing to gain control of the gang and obtain the video footage that could incriminate him.

As director, Lee maintains careful control of the film’s pacing, eschewing the constant beatdowns and killings typical of mob dramas, and concentrating instead on testing the power dynamic between Na, Lim and Choi as he moves his characters into unavoidable confrontation before unleashing the most intense scenes. Artfully accomplishing these action sequences without completely overdoing the violence, Lee demonstrates that he’s a talent to watch among South Korea’s emerging genre directors.

Production company: CineGuru
Cast: Kim Hye-soo, Kim Min-seok, Lee Sun-kyun, Lee Hee-joon, Choi Moo-sung,
Director-screenwriter: Lee An-kyu
Producer: Kim Mi-hwa
Executive producers: Choi Jae-won, Kim Mi-hwa
Director of photography: Kim Tae-kyung
Production designer: Cho Hwa-sung
Costume designer:  Choi Se-yeon
Music: Mowg
Editor: Shin Min-kyung
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival

90 minutes