Master (2016)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/10/17 17:00:44

"A bit too much of a long con, but otherwise great."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Korean thriller "Master" feels like it should have an Indian-style intermission in the middle as it shuffles characters up, changes locations, and basically feels like filmmaker Jo Ui-seok has made both a tight, entertaining thriller and its decent sequel, then stitched them together to make something that works as one movie but feels a little stretched out. Ten minutes to stretch your legs and get ready for something new would have helped, although it still makes fine use of a great cast regardless.

It kicks off with financial fraud detectives Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) and Shin Gemma (Uhm Ji-won) attending a presentation of the “One Network”, an investment firm that promises daily dividends and full transparency, already boasting over a hundred thousand members and poised to grow even larger with its plans to acquire a savings back; they think President Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byun-hun) is running South Korea’s largest pyramid scheme. Close to bringing it down, they consider the real prizes to be One’s data center and a ledger full of blackmail material that would help Jin, PR handler “Mama” Kim Eom-ma (Jin Kyung), and systems chief Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin) escape persecution. Their plan is to turn Park, although the cocky young man already seems to have contingency plans in place.

Those that don’t follow Korean cinema particularly closely will probably, at most, recognize the name of Lee Byung-hun, who has appeared in a number of Hollywood productions over the past few years, and even they will likely be surprised to see him playing the villain with a bit of a weathered face and a touch of silver in his hair. It turns out to be fun casting against type as he’s able to sell Jin as the charismatic entrepreneur in the opening before he starts shedding his fake bonhomie backstage, a pivot that’s funny in real time but doesn’t stop him from still coming off as half-convincing when Jin’s trying to scam people later on. If you are a fan of Korean film, though… That’s a heck of a cast. Gang Dong-won is coming off a string of hits and brings a very enjoyable swagger to the righteous chief investigator, Kim Woo-bin is one of South Korea’s most popular up-and-coming young actors, Jin Kyung and Uhm Ji-won are reliable familiar faces, and the film even breaks out reliable actor Oh Dal-su to play a breezily corrupt lawyer in the second half.

Part of what made Jo’s previous film Cold Eyes an improvement on its businesslike Hong Kong source material is that he’s good at making characters in genre films play off each other in entertaining ways without being too self-referential or precious about it, and that knack keeps the first half of the movie especially zippy. The masterminds behind One Network come off as a well-oiled machine whose energetically-amoral parts have no great fondness for each other, and their being capable and funny but not some sort of tight-knit family makes them fun to watch snipe without feeling like they’ll rip the audience off by imploding on their own. The cops hunting them down are just barbed enough to not be boring, and when the second half calls for undercover work and new alliances, it freshens things up before they can get boring.

That second half, with large chunks sections in Manila as the villains who escaped Seoul plot an even bigger and more dastardly scheme, is where things start to stretch a bit too far at points. The first half was fairly breezy because while its pyramid scheme was self-evidently a bad thing that would hurt a lot of people, it was both the sort of con where the individual victims buy in partly because of their own greed while Jin’s promises got more absurdly grandiose; the “Eco Manila” gambit not only doesn’t have a lot of those mitigating circumstances, but both Jin and Jae-myung wind up with fairly convoluted plans that require more attention for less payoff. It all feels more diffuse, too; the directly-butting heads from the first half start circling each other, and for a while it seems like things are moving apart at the very point where most movies are bringing things together.

When things do start coming to a head, at least, Jo doesn’t mess around, treating the audience to clever mind games and some intense shoot-outs. There’s been just enough of that sort of thing that switching into high gear doesn’t feel like a weird or dishonest change at all, and things have certainly started to pick up again by this point with Lee, Kang, and Kim all kicking things up a notch as the stakes get higher in the run to the end. Things are never quite so uncertain as Jo wants the audience to believe, but it’s still a kick to watch things play out regardless.

The mid-film switch-up is a tough thing to pull off, and in this case it leaves "Master" a little less than what it could have been, with the changes of plans perhaps working better without another adjustment on top of them. Fortunately, the film’s got both the sort of great cast and a filmmaker that can make the ping-pong elements work,

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