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Another Public Enemy
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by Jay Seaver

"Above-average Korean crime."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Despite that sequel-looking title, no prior experience is necessary to enjoy Kang Woo-suk's "Another Public Enemy"; it's more a thematic follow-up than a literal one. Anyone who enjoys a slick, corruption-fueled crime drama and is open to Korean cinema is coming in fully equipped, although an extra cushion for your seat wouldn't hurt: At nearly two and a half hours, it sometimes seems to take its time getting to the good stuff.

The film opens some fifteen or twenty years ago, and we meet Kang Chul-jung in high school. He gets involved in a rumble with a neighboring school, but when it comes time for corporal punishment to be handed out, one student, Han Sang-woo, is pulled out from the rest, due to his father's wealth and influence. Kang swears that he will study hard and dedicate himself to fighting that sort of corruption. Flash forward to the present, and Kang (Sol Kyung-gu) is a rising star as a prosecutor, personally leading police on raids to smash gangs. Han (Jeong Joon-ho), meanwhile, has become a monster, selling off his foundation's schools and other less-profitable assets in order to fund a golf academy in America. He even runs down a street cleaner when the man scolds him for littering. When one of Han's partners suggests foul play in the accident that placed Han's older brother in a coma (and Han in charge of the family's foundation) two weeks after his father's death, Kang pounces on the opportunity to take him down - but not only is it dangerous to take a case so personally, but Han wields enough money and influence to create enormous pressure from above to drop the case.

The core of the movie is the performances by Sol and Jeong. Sol's Kang is first seen humorously, stuck in a traffic jam, listening to a tape about how to make a good impression by smiling more and bigger. It's one of the few unguarded moments where he doesn't seem focused on his all-overriding goal of taking down the rich and powerful. Almost every thought in his mind runs along those lines; even when he's having lunch with friend and colleague Joh, he foists the bill on the other man who, after all, has a wealthy father-in-law. He's quick to joke, but he also has an occasionally dangerous indifference to the consequences of his actions; it's absolutely no surprise when he puts his job in danger again and again because of his immediate goal.

Jeong's Han, on the other hand, tends to hold his intensity in until it's time for the explosion, which tends to be impressive as all heck when it comes; the cinematographer claims that his acting shook the camera on one occasion. In every scene, he carries himself with the attitude that he cares for nothing in the world other than his own self-interest, and he can't be bothered with hiding it. When Kang appears to get the upper hand, Han is furious, of course, but also uncomprehending. Kang is not wealthy, and not working toward his own empowerment; how can he hope to overcome that?

Visually, this film is a great treat; with its prosecutors crammed into busy offices with low tables, while Han exists in metallic boardrooms and apartments. Careful attention is paid to all facets of the film's look, right down to the hairstyles, with Han's careful blow-drying never out of place and Kang's short but unkempt cut (he must go to Souel's cheapest, fastest barber) looking either endearing or kind of pathetic depending on the tone of the scene. The two act as endpoints on a continuum, and you can easily tell where any of the other characters fall by noting how much they resemble Han or Kang.

The film's main problem is that it is just too long for the story it's telling. Han's machinations aren't terribly complicated - they basically revolve around him strong-arming one guy - and they're relatively open, so the movie doesn't have a very strong procedural angle. Even when one of Kang's most trusted investigators (and best friends) is killed by an assassination attempt aimed at Kang, the investigation feels somewhat perfunctory, and the interrogation is too easy, almost played for laughs. With the amount of time this movie has to play around with, it only seems to have enough story for an episode of Law & Order, or maybe a 2-parter. Fans of a more character-driven cinema may say that that's the right call, but as compelling and well-acted as Kang and Han are, their basic conflict is fairly simple, so the movie feels padded out. For example, I think everyone from Kang's immediate supervisor to the Korean President tries to dissuade him from pursuing the case.

But who's going to tell Kang Woo-suk to cut 30-45 minutes out of his movie? The first Public Enemy was a huge hit, and for this film, he's the writer, director, and producer, not to mention that he heads the film's production house and distributor, Cinema Service (one of Korea's most successful, if not the most successful). In some ways, it makes it all the more unusual that he handed off filming of two of the film's crucial segments to other directors - Kim Sang-jin handles the opening flashback to Kang's high-school days, while Chang Youn-hyun stages a pretty darn tense car chase in the middle. That includes half of the movie's big action set-pieces, but the transition is pretty seamless. That these moments are among the movie's high points shouldn't detract from one's opinion of Kang as a director - the rest of the movie is quite good. I guess it just goes to show what having your own studio will get you (Kim and Chang also have movies produced by Cinema Service at Fantasia this year).

As much as I'd like to see "Another Public Enemy" tightened up a bit, I have to admit, when you've got two actors doing as fine a job as Sol and Jeong, losing even a minute of their performances has got to be painful. Maybe Kang Woo-suk the studio head should have overruled Kang Woo-suk the writer/director on this, but the failure to do so doesn't sink Another Public Enemy; it just means that there's a little room for improvement next time.

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originally posted: 07/15/05 12:15:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Woo-Suk Kang

Written by
  Woo-Suk Kang

  Kyung-gu Sol
  Jun-ho Jeong
  Shin-il Kang
  Geun-hyeong Park
  Hie-bong Byeon

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