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Assassination (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"One of the summer's top action movies comes from South Korea."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: During the first half-hour or so of "Assassination", it is not unreasonable to think that the movie could and should be streamlined a bit; there is an awful lot introduced early on that seems needlessly complicated at the time. The next couple of hours of action and intrigue may not necessarily convince a confused audience member that it was all necessary, but it will certainly supply enough excitement that, whatever he or she thought of the film at the start, that same viewer will probably not want there to be less of it. "Assassination" is big, and that becomes one of its many strengths.

It opens with a scene in 1911, a tense bit where Korean rebels including Yem Suk-jin (Lee Jung-jae) carry out a bombing against the occupying Japanese. The plot is quickly tracked to the wife of Korean industrialist and collaborator Kang In-guk (Lee Kyoung-young), and he is, to say the least, not sentimental about the mother of his infant children. Twenty-two years later, Yem is part of the group recruiting a team intending to make its way to Seoul and assassinate In-guk and war criminal Momaru Kawaguchi in the days leading up to their children's wedding: Sniper Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun Ji-hyun), explosives expert Hwang Duk-sum (Choi Duk-moon), and "Big Gun" Cho Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong). However, because Yem has been turned by the Japanese, he also hires mysterious assassin "Hawaii Pistol" (Ha Jung-woo) and his partner Buddy (Oh Dal-su) to eliminate the team, claiming that they are Japanese double agents. Even beyond that, though, there is one bit that nobody seems to have planned for.

That twist is, admittedly, something any reasonably attentive viewer will anticipate from the first time he or she hears a certain word in the prologue, but that's okay, because co-writer/director Choi Dong-hoon not only doesn't waste any time beating around the bush, but when it comes time to play that card, he does so in far more ruthless fashion than one might perhaps expect. That's doubly true because while there's no doubt of its deadly intentions, there's a jaunty tone to much of the movie. Pistol and Ok-yun flirt in their early meetings; Song-ok, Duk-sum, and Buddy all have a comic sidekick feel even if there's never any doubt to their capability. Even moments before Yem kills his way out of a trap that's been sprung for him in, Choi is using a light touch, in part to soften the audience up and in part to keep a longish film moving.

But when the time for action comes - or, often more jarringly, violence that justifies later action in the audience's mind - there's no doubt that the filmmakers realize that this is serious business. Choi sets each action sequence up meticulously, even the ones that arise quickly, and then has the killers on both sides plow through them ruthlessly. The pivotal ones mushroom to a scale that, by the time characters are shooting up a wedding in a swanky department store, seems so out of control that the characters are halfway to finding it beyond belief. These scenes aren't entirely grim - Choi, co-writer Lee Gi-cheol, and the cast recognize the absurdity of what the situation has evolved into and play into that when they take a breather for a bit - but their eyes are always on the prize, with Choi making sure that the audience can both see where every bullet is coming from and going as well as making sure the audience is invested. The big action scenes are cathartic and tragic on top of being executed with technical perfection.

That's in large part due to a large but well-placed cast, led by Gianna Jun as Ok-yun. In some ways, we know what's important about her before she shows up on screen when we're told she is in the stockade for having shot her superior officer but see everyone in her unit staunchly supporting her - she gets stuff done, if not within the rules, and is well-liked. Jun plays both Ok-yun's hard combat-forged edge well, but also manages the scenes meant to humanize her (like how a 1930s Korean freedom fighter in her early twenties is fascinated by the idea of coffee without knowing much about it) very well; Ok-yun seems a well-rounded heroine. When the script calls upon her to do a little extra, she takes what could easily be throwaway bits and makes them count.

Lee Jung-jae doesn't play the primary villain as Yem, but he's the one most often getting things done on the ground, and he makes Yem a great spy in part because he seems to believe in the causes of both his Korean and Japanese superiors, but his desire for his self-preservation and advancement supersedes it. He's untrustworthy but neither in an obvious way nor as just playing the hero despite being the villain - not a problem for Lee Kyoung-young, who makes Kang In-guk a despicable traitor, nor Park Byung-eun, who gives In-guk's prospective son-in-law a thin veneer of charm over his monstrous true self. Ha Jung-woo spends the most time playing against the latter, and though he's not having the obvious sort of fun as Hawaii Pistol - it's very easy to turn that sort of character into self-parody, which is not this film's thing - he gives Pistol the proper sort of confidence and hint of a mercenary moral compass. Part of that comes from having Oh Dal-su to work with; not only does "Buddy" sport the most impressive of the film's many mustaches, but Oh plays funny and capable in a way that both builds Pistol up and deflates any pomposity that the character may show. Choi Duk-moon and Cho Jin-woong do something similar for Ok-yun, and the cast is deep beyond that, with Kim Hae-sook a standout the woman whose bar will be the assassination team's base of operations.

It also doesn't hurt at all that this is a lavish, slick movie, the sort where even if people are doing dirty work, the costume department is going to outfit them with style and where Seoul and Shanghai shine with a sort of glamour despite being occupied cities. The producers have built some big sets in order to give Choi room to play when shooting action, and they're filled with such beautiful detail that it's a shame most will not be reusable, what with the bullet holes and explosions and all. There's a moment or two when it seems like they had to re-use some locations for practical purposes - were department stores venues for big weddings in the 1930s? - but such quibbles quickly pass as the audience soaks it in from the edges of their seats.

I do think a 1949-set pair of bookends could go, but other than that, "Assassination" is the good stuff, a crackerjack thrill-ride whose rapid release in America (just two weeks after its South Korean opening) should not go unnoticed during a summer that already has its fair share of impressive action. If you've got the chance to see this on the big screen, make use of it; this is the sort of import that plays the blockbuster game just as well as Hollywood at its best.

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originally posted: 08/08/15 23:25:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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12/15/15 pfggzss USA 4 stars
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  07-Aug-2015 (NR)


  07-Aug-2015 (MA)

Directed by
  Dong-hoon Choi

Written by
  Dong-hoon Choi

  Gianna Jun
  Jung-Jae Lee
  Jung-woo Ha
  Dal-soo Oh
  Jin-woong Cho

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