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King, The (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Epic intentions, small potatoes."
3 stars

Not every epic film has a point-of-view character meant to help the audience approach the larger-than-life people at the center, and maybe "The King" doesn’t either. That’s the problem - the guy we follow just doesn’t do that much compared to the “king” of the title, but he seldom feels close to that man’s plans. It leaves the audience with a slickly made movie of great sweep that nevertheless keeps them at arm’s length.

It comes from the perspective of Park Tae-soo (Jo In-seong), who grew up in the town of Teolla-do but was inspired to become a prosecutor when he saw one utterly humiliate his tough-guy, small-time-crook father - that was power. He passes the bar, and eventually comes to the attention of Yang Dong-chul (Bae Seong-woo), who recruits him to the major case squad, where Han Kang-sik (Jung Woo-sung) stockpiles evidence of high-profile crimes that he can prosecute strategically later in a manner that consolidates his power, whether it be to protect gangster ally Kim Eung-soo (Kim Eui-song) or influence the result of Presidential elections. Tae-soo is a quick learner, making his own alliance with old classmate Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol), although eventually anti-corruption prosecutor Ahn Hee-yoon (Kim So-jin) gets wise to the pattern.

Some familiarity with South Korean history likely makes Han Kang-sik a bit more of an interesting figure; the country’s transition from a dictatorship to something more closely resembling a true democracy was gradual, and Han’s selective prosecutions might have been both what a dictatorship needs to function as well as the skills needed to rise within one. This is not a thread that comes up much during the film, aside from conversations about various Presidential candidates’ values, and as a result, Han plays as a somewhat bland villain - ruthless and capable, sure, but without any guiding motivation, and despite being portrayed as successful, he doesn’t seem to rise much. Jung Woo-sung sets his face in a demonic smirk while still portraying Han as someone not obviously monstrous to the outside world, but he’s never given the complexity that would make this “king” compelling.

The trouble with that is, he’s driving a lot of the action in the middle-to-end of the movie, and Tae-soo doesn’t have that much of his own going on. He gets an extended - and, truth be told, frequently entertaining - origin story as the movie takes him from childhood to coming onto Yang’s radar, but any battle for his soul ends fairly early on, and the qualms he has about what he must do to join Han’s group are treated more as a way to re-establish his connection with Du-il rather than a source of conflict for the rest of the film. It’s a bit of a waste, because Jo In-seong is at his best when playing Tae-soo as having a decent heart to go along with how he craves respect and power and able to get tripped up despite his cunning and street smarts. When he’s just a reflection of Han, he’s not nearly as interesting.

That’s compounded by the way he has a bunch of fun characters and attendant subplots orbiting around him: Jung Sung-mo and Jung Eun-chae, for instance, play the father and sister who are still grifters and thus both a thorn in his side and ways to show how willingly corrupt he is. Kim Ah-jung plays his wife, introduced as being rebellious and a match to his scrappiness despite coming from a well-connected family, but there’s little sign of that until the last act (also, her introduction is weird, like we’re supposed to recognize her as the college girlfriend who ran and let him get caught by the police at a pro-democracy demonstration, but though it’s a different character). Ryu Jun-yeol is good enough as Du-il to have his own movie, playing nicely off Jo In-seong as seeming opposites that should have common ground. The real shame is that Ahn is introduced relatively late and abruptly; Kim So-jin brightens every scene as her idealistic but still wily prosecutor, making a stretch where Tae-soo is the focus of the movie despite being sidelined from the action more lively than it might otherwise be.

And despite the flaws it has, <I>The King</I> is still a very lively movie. It’s a bit of an odd choice to have Tae-soo be such a comedic main character in a movie about decades of corruption, though that’s not uncommon in Korean dramas. It sometimes clashes with the genuine viciousness occasionally on display, but writer/director Han Jae-rim knows how to use a lack of subtlety: A shot of a man about to be torn up by dogs will dissolve into men in suits about to turn on each other, and Tae-soo being seduced by the potential of Han’s secret files is delightfully literal and fantastical. That he has two of these visual metaphors going at the climax speaks to a tendency toward excess, but even the parts that seem like they could be cut at least seem useful as well as entertaining.

All told, "The King" is probably just entertaining enough to make up for being messy, and maybe a little more so if the viewer knows a bit more about the recent Korean history that forms the backdrop. That shagginess keeps it from being in the same class as Han’s "The Show Must Go On", but the style means I’ll still keep an eye out for what he does next.

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originally posted: 02/01/17 04:41:34
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Directed by
  Jae-rim Han

Written by
  Jae-rim Han

  In-seong Jo
  Seong-woo Bae
  Woo-sung Jung
  Jun-yeol Ryu
  Eun-Chae Jung
  Ah-jung Kim
  So-jin Kim

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