Although the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival began on June 22nd, competing demands on my time prevented me from seeing the five screeners reviewed below until now. All are being shown starting tomorrow until July 9th, the final day of the festival. Averse as I am to film reviewing hyperbole, I can state that they are among the best narrative films I have seen this year and would be of the utmost interest to New Yorkers who tend to have confidence in my recommendations.
Inside Men; A Violent Prosecutor
These two Korean films share almost identical plots and political concerns. If you have been following my reviews of Korean films over the years, you will probably be aware that I consider the Korean film industry as a source of some of the best work being done in the world today. While made largely as pop culture influenced by Hong Kong cinema of the 70s and 80s, they have often penetrated the Deep State that rests on the four legs of anti-Communism, out-of-control Chaebols, corrupt politicians and organized crime. In other words, Korean films are one of the main sources of a badly needed critique of the country’s rotten capitalist “success” story. Koreans who see such fictional films certainly understand that they are ultimately pointing to the grim reality of a system in which 304 people died on April 16, 2014 because a ferry was allowed to operate in a deregulated system. They were victims of a conspiracy to gamble with the lives of high school students on a field trip for the sake of a fast buck.
“Inside Men”, which shows tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30PM is the highest-grossing R-Rated film in South Korean history. It certainly earned the R rating from the orgies that appear throughout the film involving Chaebol executives, politicians, media moguls that make Rupert Murdoch look angelic by comparison and top officials of the country’s prosecutor’s department—their Department of Justice.
Like Elliot Ness, the incorruptible prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon (Jo Seung-woo) is determined to prove that the men who gather regularly at a power broker’s mansion to compare dick sizes around a banquet table in the company of prostitutes are deeply implicated in a bribery scheme that has corrupted his colleagues and funneled money to a political campaign whose program favors the interests of the chaebol class rather than the country’s 99 percent.
The title refers to Woo’s partnership with a gangster named An Sang-gu (Byung-hun Lee) who worked for the cabal to cover up evidence of the cash flow between the corporate crooks and the state apparatus, including the prosecutor’s department. When he absconds with a copy of bank records that would prove the connection, mostly as way of playing one side against the other if the need ever arose, the chaebol’s hired thugs abduct him, take him to a warehouse and chop off his right hand. As an inside man with intimate knowledge of their criminal activities, An Sang-gu is just the person who could testify in court against them and bring their empire crashing down. But he has no interest in justice, only revenge. The loss of his hand has made him hunger for getting even, a theme pervasive in Korean film for a number of years now, including Park Chan-wook’s Revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.)
For the first third of the film, the plot has a somewhat byzantine character as the criminal enterprise is shown in sordid detail even as it becomes somewhat difficult to keep track of the players. When the chaebol tops realize that An Sang-gu is plotting against them, they send a crew out to kill him. Even with his useless right hand, he skillfully fends them off until he is finally lying semiconscious on the ground with the head hitman advancing upon him with a brick. As the brick is about to come smashing down on his skull, prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon comes to the rescue by smashing a bottle over the hitman’s head in the nick of time. For those fond of Asian combat choreography, this is a scene that will leave you breathless. It is also a scene that brings the two protagonists together for the first time—one searching for justice, the other revenge—and makes for a partnership that begins in acrimony and ends on a triumphant note. It is a brilliant film from beginning to end and worth putting on your calendar even if I bring news to you about it late in the game.
In “A Violent Prosecutor”, you get the same constellation of forces except in this film the prosecutor has ended up in prison when he gets too close to proving the same kind of sordid connections between the corporate bosses and the Deep State.
The film begins with environmentalists protesting against the Trump-styled construction of a hotel in the middle of a bird sanctuary. The developers send several van loads of common criminals who wear the same distinctive yellow vests as the protestors but are instructed to attack the cops at the construction site with steel rods. Like the agent provocateurs adopting the guise of anarchists in a number protests in the USA, the goal was to make the environmentalists look like out-of-control criminals.
When prosecutor Jeong-min Hwang (Byun Jae-wook) interrogates one of the agent provocateurs who has been arrested for assaulting a cop, he realizes immediately that the man knows about as much about wildlife preservation as he does about microbiology. After ordering him to strip to the waist, he derides him for pretending he is something other than a common criminal. His massive Yakuza-style tattoos are proof positive. When the man continues to deny that he is working for the developers, Jeong-min Hwang begins slapping him around in the fashion alluded to in the film’s title. Later that night when he steps out for a break, a prosecutor in cahoots with the developers comes into the interrogation room and kills the man. The next day Jeong-min Hwang is framed for the murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
As fate would have it, a con man who was part of the fake environmentalist assault on the cops ends up in the same prison. As the proverbial jailhouse lawyer, Jeong-min Hwang sees an opportunity. He will provide legal advice that will get Han Chi-won (Dong-won Kang) out of prison early in exchange for the con man becoming his inside man gathering evidence on the prosecutors who betrayed him and the corporate thugs who are destroying the country.
Like the partnership between the two lead actors in “Inside Men”, the violent prosecutor and the con man make for stirring dramatic interaction and make this film memorable. It can be seen at the School of Visual Arts movie theater at 6:15 on July 8, Friday night.
The eponymous hero of this Chinese film is an aging reformed ex-mobster who is a mayor ex officio in a poor neighborhood in Beijing. While retaining both the glowering visage of his mobster youth and resorting occasionally to violence only when absolutely necessary, Mr. Six is mostly content to hang out on the street chatting with his neighbors and keeping an eye out for wrong-doers.
His relative serenity is interrupted when learns that his twenty-year old son Bobby is being held captive in the luxury car garage owned and operated by a platinum-haired punk named Kris whose Ferrari has been scratched intentionally by Mr. Six’s son in retaliation for a beating he received from Kris’s henchmen after being falsely accused of sleeping with his girlfriend.
Mr. Six is told by Kris that unless he comes up with a small fortune to pay for a new paint job in three days, his son will be killed. Forced to rely on his limited financial resources, he approaches old friends from his mobster youth who have become respectable businessmen and as a hedge will contact the same people to join him in a gang war with his son’s much younger captors.
Despite expectations that the film will be strictly a genre affair with flashing fists and lunging swords in abundance, it is much more about a father and son relationship with Mr. Six being forced to emerge out his mobster shell that he has been carrying around for much too long to finally bond with a son who has always felt abandoned—up until now. Mr. Six is played by veteran actor, screenwriter and director Feng Xiaogang who is one of China’s major talents. Born in 1958, he is a powerful presence in every scene and fully believable as the film’s key character. “Mr. Six” shows Thursday, 8:30PM at the School of Visual Arts.
Based on the real-life abduction of celebrated Chinese TV actor Wu Ruofu, this is a taut policier that pits the cops against a gang of kidnappers led by the vicious Zhang (Qianyuan Wang). In a perfect casting touch, the actor Wu is played by Andy Lau, who has appeared in 160 films since 1982. Lau, like Feng Xiaogang, is one of the Chinese film industry’s treasures and perfectly suited for a role in which he plays an Andy Lau type character.
Tightly plotted as most films in this genre are, you see a race against time as cops try to track down the kidnapper’s hideout to rescue Mr. Wu and a hapless young man who is being held for ransom there as well. Chained together the two men manage to turn in powerful performances despite being immobile for nearly the entire length of the film. In another casting coup, Wu Ruofu plays the top cop trying to save the actor whose experience was based on his own.
Although Chinese (and more specifically Hong Kong) policiers have shown the signs of exhaustion in recent years, “Saving Mr. Wu” is a reminder that when the genre is done right, it can be bracing entertainment beyond the capability of a Hollywood that practically invented gangster movies. It can be seen on Saturday, July 9th, 4PM at the School of Visual Arts. Highly, highly recommended.
This very Hitchcockian Korean film was the dissertation project of Kim Jin-hwang at the Korean Academy of Film Arts and also the co-recipient of a Directors Guild Award at the 2015 Busan Film Festival.
The youthful failed actor Wan-ju has been forced to make a living as an escort for women and a kind of sidekick to socially awkward men who need help in breaking the ice with the opposite sex. It is only a way to pay the rent and to chip in for his ailing mother’s hospital expenses.
One day he is approached by a middle-aged woman on a free-lance basis to pretend that he is an eyewitness to a murder that took place in his neighborhood. At first put off by the suggestion that he will be paid to provide false witness, he finally relents out of economic desperation—a condition facing many Koreans.
Not long afterwards, he discovers that he has helped to put the wrong man behind bars and becomes committed to tracking down and identifying the real killer no matter how much the risk he faces to life and limb. At 33, director Kim Jin-hwang shows considerable talent in this psychological thriller more intent on exploring conflicted motivations rather than conforming to detective tale conventions. It has the gloomy atmosphere of “Vertigo” but without the sleuthing. It works on its own terms and joins all the other films discussed above as an experience that no American film currently being show in NYC can match. It can be seen Saturday, July 9, 2:15 PM at the School of Visual Arts.