Rough Cut (2008)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/13/09 14:35:54

"Call action and let the chips fall where they may."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I've got to be honest here... I kind of wanted a different ending on this. Part of what's so much fun about Korean movies is that they don't seem obligated to take even familiar genre films in the same directions that either Hollywood or western indies do, but would that have been so bad here? After all, this premise is, oddly enough, not nearly as played-out as one might think.

After all, given the long-time, two-way love affair between gangsters and the movies, you'd think they'd have intersected this way more often. On the one hand, you've got Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-hwan), a popular actor whose volatile temper and tendency not to pull punches during action scenes is threatening his current movie, as he's put his co-star in the hospital. On the other, you've got Lee Kang-pae (So Ji-sub), an underboss who loves the movies, even once having a bit part in a film; he's serving as the conduit between the rest of the gang and Chairman Baek (Song Yong-tae), in jail awaiting trial. One night, Kang-pae and his men are having a meeting at the same restaurant as Soo-ta and the filmmakers, and the two meet, not getting off on the right foot. The odd result, though, is Kang-pae being offered the open part in Soo-ta's movie, which he accepts - on the condition that the fight scenes are real.

I'm curious about how the screenplay for this film evolved as it passed through the hands of three or four different writers. From what I gather, it started with famed (or infamous, depending on one's taste) auteur Kim Ki-duk, and ended with an extensive rewrite by director Jang Hoon to make it his own, with Ok Jin-gon and Oh Sei-yeon somewhere in between. So maybe it was never a simple comedy, or maybe Kim was looking to produce something conventional to fund his more offbeat films. Whatever the process, the film bears some of the marks of having had many hands touch it - there are subplots which may seem extraneous and odd shifts in tone. Jang does an exceptional job of pulling all of this together, making what could be dead ends into interesting character builders and keeping the audience on its toes.

It's not just stitching a surprisingly detailed story together that Jang does well, though. This is a slick-looking movie, with an eye for detail both in setting and in Jang's knack for finding and presenting interesting moments. He seldom goes for the easy or obvious visual, especially when he could find ways of exaggerating the differences between real life and shooting a film. He also absolutely comes through with the action, which is important, since its authenticity is such a prominent point in the story. It's frequently brutally quick, especially in the early scenes when it's obvious that Soo-ta is woefully unprepared to deal with someone who messes people up for a living, building up to a final, mud-covered brawl which goes on for quite a while without ever being less than exhilirating.

Even when they're not fighting, So Ji-sub and Kang Ji-hwan are fascinating to watch. So Ji-sub is an up-and-coming star in Korea (heck, crowds mobbed him when he was presented an award at the New York Asian Film Festival), and it's not hard to see why: Aside from being exceptionally good-looking, he's also able to project both real menace and charm. We see how much he enjoys being part of the movies, and is somewhat seduced by them, but he doesn't lose his edge through introspection. Kang Ji-hwan, meanwhile, takes the character who only thinks he's hard like Kang-pae and makes Soo-ta kind of fascinating: We're not given simple reasons for his being a jerk, but we also never doubt the moments when he's not one, and it's hard not to admire his talent and drive regardless. Soo-ta is complex rather than contradictory, and that's a big feather in Kang's cap.

They've got a quality supporting cast to work off, too. I would have loved to see more of Jang Hee-jin as Soo-ta's "ordinary" girlfriend Eun-sun; her brief scenes and ambiguous attitude toward dating a movie star imply that there's another movie-worthy story to tell there. Hong Soo-hyeon is the film-within-the-film's leading lady and a potential romantic interest for Kang-pae; she goes from professional to turned on by the dangerous guy to believing in Kang-pae without missing a beat. Meanwhile, Ko Chang-seok steals nearly every scene he's in as director Bong, who while worried about his movie falling apart can't hid a certain amount of pleasure in watching his egomaniac star get beat up.

I'm still not sure what I think of the ending; at the time, it felt a bit deflating, but in retrospect, it certainly seems to work better. Even if I come down on the side of my initial reaction, it's no counter for the excellent work that makes up most of the film. Either way, while Kim Ki-duk is likely to be the name used to sell this to the west, Jang Hoon and his cast will certainly make their own names afterward.

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