This year’s 11th Korean Film Festival in Australia is being conducted entirely online with free admission. After skipping the first two days, I began my festival experience with By Quantum Physics: A Nightlife Venture [Yang-ja-Mul-li-hak] (2019).
Lee Chan-woo (Park Hae-soo) is a nightclub owner who started as a bodyguard. Frustrated at being treated like an idiot by bosses who ran their businesses into the ground, he went to university to improve himself, turning his studies in quantum physics into a fancy set of bullshit about self-actualisation and turning thoughts into reality. With his best friend Kim Sang-soo (Lim Chul-soo) he’s set up a new nightclub with one floor catering to youth and the other to older, sophisticated high class clients, thanks in part to financial backing by low-level gangster Jung Kap-taek (Kim Eung-soo). He also feeds information to police prosecutor Park Ki-hun (Kim Sang-ho) which allow him to make high profile arrests of problematic celebrities – the latest being a drug bust for rapper Fractal (Park Kwang-sun).
Sung Eun-young (Seo Ye-ji) is a nightclub manager who has cultivated a selective clientele and whose career Lee has followed from a distance. Amused by his pseudo-intellectual banter but convinced by his pitch, she agrees to his offer to grant her control of the second floor after meeting his backer Jung. Although Lee is aware that she trained as a lawyer but missed her bar examination, taking up her current occupation in order to pay off her dead father’s debts, he’s unaware that Jung was responsible for her father’s death and she is out for revenge against him.
When Prosecutor Park learns that one of Fractal’s drug buddies is Kim Jung-min (Choi Tae-joon), the son of the powerful and corrupt politician Baek Young-kam (Byun Hee-bong) who has ties to a government minister Park has long wanted to bring down, he convinces Baek’s rival Jung to lean on a reluctant Lee to agree to a sting operation to catch Kim in public at the new nightclub. Sung, having bugged the executive meeting room to keep tabs on Jung, alerts corrupt police prosecutor Yang Yoon-sik (Lee Chang-hoon), who sends in his own team preemptively to arrest both Fractal and Baek’s son. While Yang is attempting to contact Baek for blackmail purposes, the son murders Fractal, and everybody’s plans collapse into a frantic series of cover-ups. Yang frames Park as a corrupt cop, Lee and Kim go on the run before they can be framed for Fractal’s death, Jung tries to kill Sung, and the complications continue to pile up for the remainder of the film. Lee, Kim and Sung need to use a combination of cunning, bluff, luck and running away to avoid being killed and amass enough evidence for Park’s assistant prosecutor Kim Kwan-chul (Hyun Bong-sik) to circumvent the influence of the corrupt officials and arrest the guilty.
Park Hae-soo has the requisite mixture of charm and shiftiness to sell Lee’s character, who comes across as annoying at first but becomes easier to sympathise with after everything goes to hell. Lim Chul-soo is appealing as the best friend, but his potential as a character actor isn’t really tapped into here. Sung brings a cool self-contained confidence to her role as the stylish and intelligent consummate hostess, while still allowing enough humour to shine through for her gradually shifting relationship with Lee to make sense. Lee Chang-hoon is so smarmily obnoxious and self-satisfied as a corrupt cop that you almost want to see him be taken down more than Jung or Baek, who are both recognisable criminal types.
Although I generally enjoy a complicated crime plot, my attention began to lag while waiting for all of the pieces to be put in place, largely because I was insufficiently taken with Lee to be invested in his venture’s success. I perked up when the drug sting was hijacked, and once the repercussions of Fractal’s death began to mess everything up roughly 45 minutes in, I was fully committed to seeing it through to the resolution. The mixture of careful planning and seat-of-the-pants improvisation required to navigate through the constantly shifting loyalties and machinations was well orchestrated and came to a satisfying conclusion. I don’t think I’d watch it again, but I enjoyed the ride while it lasted.