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Executioner, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A bit weak in the second half, but that's not a hanging offense."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's not hard for a prison movie to get off to a decent start. There is, after all, always a new guy coming in who needs to be shown the ropes and taught the rules. That the new guy in the case of "The Executioner" is a guard rather than an inmate isn't even a particularly novel twist on the idea. Still, the filmmakers handle this hook well enough that it's not particularly hurt by its awkward second half.

The new guard is Oh Jae-hyung (Yoon Kye-sang), for whom this is just one more in a series of unimpressive jobs, and it shows - the inmates initially give him no respect. It falls to veteran guard Bae Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon) to toughen him up. Jong-ho is not shy about using his baton, and puts it to Jae-hyung that this is the only way to get the inmates' obedience, even if the hardening sometimes doesn't stop at the prison walls. Things are about to change, though - the new death row prisoner, Yong-doo (Jo Seong-ha) is a serial killer without any shred of remorse, his crimes so reviled that the government feels pressured to reinstate executions (though criminals have been sentenced to hang, none have actually been executed in South Korea since 1997). This move affects not only Yong-doo, but other inmates like Seong-hwan (Kim Jae-geon), who has been awaiting execution for so long that he and Senior Officer Kim (Park In-hwan) have become close friends.

I strongly suspect that The Executioner would have more effect on me if I were a Korean national, or even if I had more familiarity with current Korean culture and politics than I do. Part of the reason is that it does not become overtly political until about halfway through, and while any audience member who has been content to simply watch it as a prison movie will find himself or herself a little thrown by the change in emphasis, foreign audiences may be a little more at sea because they lack a baseline. What is the general thinking on the death penalty in South Korea, and why did executions stop a decade ago? Have there been recent cases like the one depicted that have led to a call for renewed executions, or is this a purely hypothetical situation? Heck, during a section of the film where Jae-hyung and his girlfriend Eun-joo (Cha Soo-yeon) deal with a pregnancy scare, there's an awkward juxtaposition of capital punishment and abortion where I realized that I didn't really know whether the anti-abortion crowds tend to politically align with the pro-execution people, and vice versa, in South Korea as they do in the US.

That said, even someone who is familiar with the local politics might find the shift to be off-putting. It calls attention to the friendship between Kim and Seong-hwan which always seems quite out of place in an otherwise starkly "us vs. them" environment - we don't get enough backstory or a parallel to make it feel anything other than improbable. It also just shows up too late to have much of an effect on Jae-hyung, Jong-ho, and Eun-joo as characters; the tracks that they are on seem unalterable by that point. Also, Jo Seong-ha is just not up to the task set to him as the killer whose crimes lead to this situation - he goes through the motions of being monstrous, but is neither terrifying enough to be an argument for the death penalty nor interesting enough to argue against it.

Up until this point, though, The Executioner has done well. Yoon Kye-sang does an excellent job of portraying Jae-hyung's transformation from being nice but somewhat unformed to being hardened enough to do the job, almost a mirror image of Jo Jae-hyeon's Jong-ho. The interplay of the two is interesting in a way that's in a sense almost tragic - there are times when Jong-ho seems more interested in breaking Jae-hyung than the prisoners, and a moment of strange equilibrium when Jae-hyung finds himself playing Cyrano to the socially awkward Jong-ho. They turn in a truly excellent pair of performances, playing tug-of-war with their characters' souls. If the movie had ended earlier, or continued on long enough to let us see in depth what effect actually becoming the executioner(s) of the title had on them, those performances would have easily carried the movie.

It's possible that I'm judging this film too harshly - in addition to not quite feeling its arguments, I cannot help but compare it to a similar recent film, "Vacation" by Japan's Haime Kadoi. The pair of fine performances are well worth seeing; I just wish the film could have joined them to its broader ideas more effectively.

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originally posted: 09/11/10 05:36:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jin-ho Choi

Written by
  Yeong-ok-I Kim

  Jae-hyun Cho
  Kye-sang Yoon
  In-hwan Park
  Soo-yeon Cha
  Jo Sung-ha

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