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A lot of the South Korean thrillers that receive mainstream attention overseas might be considered eccentric or darkly comedic, but there is another side to this coin as Jung Ho-Lee’s crime drama shows. This is a bleak and occasionally brutal tale that offers a slick and stylish experience with little in terms of levity or respite. It’s a relentless story brimming with moments of suspense. But it’s also a film full of side characters and sub plots that aren’t always weaved together so effectively during a weighty running time that is over two hours. It’s a consistently polished affair and tonally it never lets up, but as the story progresses there are still some weaker aspects that should be examined.
To really set the stage the movie opens with questionable cop Captain Jung (Sung-min Lee) taking things a little too far as he assaults a man who threatened one of his informants. The slippery field they’re both in seems symbolic of Jung’s methods; if he was ever a good guy he’s now down in the mud on the level of this crook. He wants to do things his own way and must feel that the ends justify the means, but he isn’t a happy figure and is often filled with rage that spills out in front of his colleagues. There’s an unspoken history to the character which has caused a rift between himself and his wife (Si-ha Ahn) who is divorcing him, and his one time partner Captain Han (Jae-myung Yoo) who is now his department rival.
As the real story begins it gets even darker when the remains of a missing girl are found. There’s yet more imagery of mud at the crime scene to remind us that Jung is dirty. However he’s up for a promotion so maybe things aren’t so bad, and the unit he supervises soon finds a suspect. Is a local church deacon really the killer or is this all too simple? As things progress the teams led by Jung and Han come to blows and tensions remain high throughout, which of course leads to more questionable police work. Jung really can’t catch a break and soon he’s faced with complications caused by the prison release of a reckless drug dealer (Hye-jin Jeon) who claims to know where the killer is living.
The first half of the story is incredibly engrossing as the two competing homicide investigations collide and their work brings them to a tenement building the suspect may be hiding in. Unfortunately for them simply knocking the door is a problem since this is also the centre of operations for two major underworld elements in the city. The subsequent raid of the premises is a major set piece that keeps ramping up the suspense as things unravel before Jung’s eyes. It turns out that Han isn’t the most by-the-book detective either and the whole thing gets out of hand when they’re discovered. It’s hard to call this an action sequence but it’s all pretty visceral and is certainly the highlight of the film.
Things become even more complicated when Jung has to cover up a crime by swapping evidence at the police station, adding even more layers of suspense when Han starts to realise something is wrong. The incident also results in unwanted attention from a Chinese gang the operation interfered with. These kind of twists and turns are frequent and varied and soon Jung’s actions start to catch up with him, leading to him digging an even deeper hole in an effort to escape. However by the time the third act arrives the original murder plot has become messy and there are some questionable contrivances as things spiral out of control.
Overall the main character conflict is strong and the mystery is compelling, but when both leads are lacking morals there’s little pathos. Some stylistic elements are also less than perfect as things unfold. It’s a cold and bleak looking film thanks to a lot of stylish photography. Jung’s stressed emotional state is a focus for the camera, and the music is relentless and pounding in many scenes to emphasize this. However not everyone will be a fan of his buzzing phone being added to the score to escalate the sense of claustrophobia. It’s a nice touch but perhaps it should have been used more sparingly. Like the overly long film length itself there’s a lack of restraint that blunts the overall experience towards the end.
You’ve seen this sort of story before in movies that explore the grey areas of detective work, and several moments similar to something like Insomnia. The story is also a partial remake of French crime thriller 36 so originally isn’t exactly one of the strong suits here. However the execution of this material is pretty accomplished even if the whole thing starts to run out of steam after about ninety minutes. Perhaps cutting a few of the extraneous twists or shortening the third act would have improved all of this. For fans of South Korean crime flicks seeing this is an easy choice even if it’s not up there with the best examples of the genre. But for other viewers it’s still worth your time.