Tough as Iron: Film Review

A film rife with unresolved inconsistencies and competing agendas.

Melodrama meets crime drama in this uneven South Korean feature.

Neither fish nor fowl, Tough As Iron represents an unstable cocktail of unrelated genre styles that never manage to completely coalesce. Distributor CJ Entertainment is targeting a platform release in the U.S. following its Korean debut, but with little likelihood of crossover success, the film faces limited prospects beyond niche markets.

Twentyish longshoreman Cheol (Yoo Ah-in) works the docks unloading seafood from fishing trawlers in Busan, Korea’s largest port (and home to the annual international film festival), while caring for his mother Soo-ni (Kim Hae-sook), who suffers from dementia and a variety of undisclosed medical conditions. Cheol’s best buddy Jongsu (Lee Shi-un) serves as a low-level thug at the bottom of the organized crime food-chain, working for the local branch of the Japanese yakuza, run by Sang-gon (Kim Jung-tae) and his stuttering, sadistic brother Hwee-gon (Kim Sung-oh), who owe their allegiance to mob leaders overseas.

While Cheol, whose name means “iron,” spends most of his free time tracking down his mother after she repeatedly wanders away from home, Jongsu is working on a harebrained investment scheme to corner offshore underwater real estate. His poorly considered decision to borrow money from his gang bosses quickly goes from bad to worse when the investment scam is exposed and Hwee-gon calls in his debt. At the same time, Cheol discovers that his mother will need surgery for an organ transplant that could save her life, although they’re expenses he can’t possibly afford. In order to repay Jongsu’s debt and secure funds for his mother’s treatment, Cheol makes a deal with Sang-gon to carry out a mob hit on a visiting Japanese yakuza boss that will seal the mobster’s ascension within the Korean branch of the organization.

Director Ahn Kwon-tae and screenwriters Lee Yeong-jong and Kim Sung-soo waste an inordinate amount of screen time getting the narrative up to speed, dwelling sentimentally on Cheol’s relationship with his mother and contrasting their fraught but loving relationship with Jongsu’s tense home life with his dad and travails with his gangster associates. By the time the plot really kicks in late into the first act, it’s clear the filmmakers want to have things every which way imaginable, combining elements of melodrama, crime thriller and even romance -- after Cheol meets a free-spirited young woman (Jung Yoo-mi) with a passion for travel -- into a chaotic genre mishmash.

Conceptually, the film’s thematic elements are in almost constant disharmony, apparently leaving the actors uncertain whether they’re meant to be over-playing a soapy family drama or earnestly essaying a gritty yakuza crime saga. Fresh-faced young Yoo swings between weepy scenes crying over his mother’s deteriorating condition and all-out beat-downs lashing out at his mob handlers, with the result that neither modality is particularly believable. Kim rarely dials down the wacky, over-protective mom routine, alternating between fretting over Cheol’s emotional burdens and completely forgetting who he is when overcome by episodes of manic dementia. Supporting castmembers fill out generic roles with little distinction.

Although it might seem logical to attribute the film’s wildly inconsistent tone to the screenwriters, as director, Ahn repeatedly plays up the stylistic divergences among the conflicting genre choices, which only adds to the overall air of confusion. The frustrating lack of consistency is unfortunate, particularly since Ahn does a capable job of making the city of Busan look passably attractive, even in the midst of a wintery chill.

Production companies: Cinema Service/The Dream Pictures
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Kim Hae-sook, Kim Jung-tae, Kim Sung-oh, Jung Yoo-mi, Lee Shi-un
Director: Ahn Gwon-tae
Screenwriters: Lee Yeong-Jong, Kim Sung-soo

Producers: Baek Seon-hee, Lee Min-ho, Han Seong-gu
Executive Producer: Jeong Tae-Sung
Director of photography:Lee Hyung-deok
Production designer: Hong Seung-jin
Costume designer: Ahn Ji-hyun
Music: Jo Young-ok
Editor: Kim Sun-min

No rating, 108 minutes

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