The Executioners -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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BUSAN, South Korea -- "The Executioners" is one of Korea's few prison pictures, and because of its rarity on the cinematic landscape there, it mines all the familiar tropes and characters viewers have been trained to expect from the sub-genre. Though not incompetent or dull -- its swift running time flies by -- there's nothing new in "The Executioners." Overseas release seems unlikely when the film lacks the lurid violence usually found (and appreciated) in convict dramas, and it's not innovative enough for a long life on the festival circuit. Domestic release could be the film's only real theatrical outlet.

Oh Jae-kyung (Yoon Kye Sang) is a rookie prison guard assigned to an oppressively gray facility to help out veteran Bae Jong-ho (Cho Jae Hyun, "Bad Guy"). Also working the ward is Kim Chul-gu (Park In Hwan, "Thirst"), a veteran with the hoary "a year to go before retirement" looming over him. When serial killer Chang Yong-du is sentenced to death and the public starts screaming for blood, the Ministry of Justice decides to carry out its first executions in over a decade -- a blatantly political move. Also going to the gallows (how old school is that?) is Kim's prison buddy Lee Sung-hwan, the oldest con in the joint.

Though "The Executioners" is suitably bleak in an old fashioned, anti-"Oz" kind of way, director Choi Jin Ho throws out the oldest dialectic in the book: The way we personally reconcile life and death, and the distinctions we make between who should live and die. Chang is blissfully vile, where as Lee is drawn as everyone's favorite uncle; Oh is gung-ho in his job, practically volunteering for death duty, but waffles on making a decision on whether or not his girlfriend should go through with an abortion.

Choi avoids passing judgment on the subject or on his characters, but that doesn't mean we can't. As Bae, Cho has the requisite steely attitude for a movie prison guard, but he has always been a compelling screen presence. His eventual breakdown comes as no surprise, particularly following Chang's entirely gruesome execution (one of the film's few sequences of genuine tension). The weak link is Yoon, who doesn't make much of the archetype of the young hothead Oh is. The most intense emotion comes when Lee and Kim see the former's execution through together -- but that too is as old a convention as they are (the one where the veterans play out a farewell together).

Venue: Pusan International Film Festival -- Korean Cinema Today, Panorama

Sales: Mirovision Inc.
Production companies: Motion Pictures, Balcon
Cast: Cho Jae Hyun, Yoon Kye Sang, Park In Hwan, Cha Soo Yeon
Director: Choi Jin Ho
Screenwriter: Kim Young Ok
Producer: Jo Sun Mook
Director of Photography: Kim Tae Sung
Production Designer: Lee In Ok
Music: Hwang Tae Kyu
Editor: Kim Sun Min
No rating, 96 minutes