KOFFIA Interlude – Believer (SBS)

Well, the Korean Film Festival is still on hold, so it’s another offering from the SBS festival tie-in package. From zombies to family drama to historical action… this time I went with gritty police procedural crime in Lee Hae-young’s Believer [Dokjeon] (2018), a remake of prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Drug War [Du zhan] (2012).

Detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) has spent years on the trail of the mysterious Mr Lee, the head of Asia’s biggest drug cartel. Believing he’s on the verge of a breakthrough, he sends teenage user and informant Soo-Jung (Keum Sae-rok) to one final rendezvous, resulting in her death. The case is on the verge of being reassigned due the death of a minor under his watch, when highly placed cartel member Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryoung) walks into the station and offers her assistance. She has just narrowly avoided being killed by a bomb which took out her manufacturing site and all personnel, but has only provided minimal information when she is killed due to tampering with her diabetes medication. The only remaining lead is low level dealer Rak (Ryoo Joon-yeol), who had returned early from an overseas trip and was sleeping in a back room so received only minimal injuries. He remains tightlipped even at the news that his mother was among the casualties, but when he learns that his dog was also injured and is in critical condition he agrees to help bring down the people responsible.

Rak was in China to make contact with Jin Ha-rim (Kim Ju-hyeok), a supplier of raw materials who could facilitate their entry into the Chinese market. Won-ho masquerades as a member of Mr Lee’s cartel to accompany Rak to the meeting with Jin, a dangerously violent addict of Korean descent who doesn’t like to travel and says that the sound of LED lightbulbs gives him a headache, and his similarly unbalanced girlfriend Bo-ryung (Jin Seo-yeon). Won-ho and his colleague So-Yeon (Kang Seung-Hyun) then pretend to be the suppliers as Rak brings cartel member Park Sun-chang (Park Hae-joon) to meet them, the first step in moving up the chain to Mr Lee. Other key characters met along the way include Brian (Cha Seung-won), a charismatic business leader who has mixed elements of a religious cult into his leadership style, and the deaf drug-cooking twins Dong-young (Kim Dong-young) and Joo-young (Lee Joo-young).

Director/co-writer Lee Hae-young brings a slick look to the film and successfully juggles the layers of deception and intrigue within the effectively layered plot (about which I’m reluctant to reveal too much). Although I’ve not seen the original Hong Kong film on which Believers is based, I gather that sufficient changes have been made to the plot of Drug War that fans of the original can still expect to be surprised. (There’s a key plot revelation which I guessed early one, but that in no way affected my enjoyment of seeing how everything unwound.) There’s not a dud actor among the cast, and the relatively inexperienced Ryoo Joon-Yeol has no trouble holding his own when playing against lead actor Cho Jin-Woong (The Handmaiden, The Spy Gone North). I was impressed by Keum Sae-rok (The Silenced), who in her brief role as the junkie informer grabbed my attention from the moment she appeared on screen and is memorable enough for viewers to become immediately invested in seeing her murderer brought to justice. The other performance which stood out to me was Cha Seung-won – I was delighted to recognise him from his role in TV series A Korean Odyssey [Hwayuki] (2017-2018), where he played regular character Woo Hwi-cheol, a modern incarnation of the Bull Demon King (a character from Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West better known to Australian viewers of a certain age as Golden Horn in the episode of Monkey (1978-1981) titled Monkey Swallows the Universe). Cha showed a great deal of versatility in that series and it was wonderful to see him again here in a very different role.

Looking back through Lee Hae-young’s filmography, he has an intriguingly varied range of films under his belt. Beginning as a screenwriter, his first film as director was Like a Virgin [Cheonhajangsa Madonna] (2006), a comedy in which a trans woman agrees to enter a men’s wrestling competition in order to use the winnings to fund her transitional surgery. He followed this with Foxy Festival [Peseutibal] (2010), a romantic comedy based on the premise that everyone has their own kinks and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Next came The Silenced [Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul] (2015), a thriller set in a 1938 girls’ boarding school which is hiding secrets, and most recently Believer (2018). Stacking these up against the various odd scripts on his CV, I hope to have the opportunity to delve into his back catalogue for myself and am curious to see what he comes up with next.

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