Veteran (2015)

Review of film that formed part of the ‘0th’ Edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF 2015)

“No police has ever touched one of the superrich,” team chief Oh (Oh Dal-su) tells his detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) in Veteran.

Still, Ryoo Seung-wan‘s eleventh feature carefully teases out the points of contact between these two otherwise disparate groups, right from its opening sequence in which Do-cheol is seen posing as a pampered playboy in order to infiltrate a gang of luxury car heisters. Fearless in his determination to bring down criminals, yet lax when it comes to the finer points of the law, Do-cheol is a man of contradictions, utterly incorruptible yet capable of grievously harming bodies and even manufacturing evidence if it will aid his dogged pursuit of justice.

Aptly enough, Do-cheol will meet his nemesis, the young corporate heir Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), at an afterparty for a TV cop show on which Do-cheol had served as an advisor, and which Tae-oh had bankrolled. For it is only really in the world of entertainment – including films like Veteran – that a lowly (and low-paid) policeman could come into such close collision with a member of the moneyed élites. Sure enough their continuing bump and grind will take place before CCTVs, cellphones and other recording devices, even as they both are shown, in a pair of parallel scenes, switching off cameras to conceal acts of violence from public scrutiny (the worst enemy of both, at least until the very end).

Do-cheol senses – correctly – that Tae-oh is trouble as soon as they meet, not least because Tae-oh puts on such a grotesque performance of the kind of behaviour that might be expected from someone so over-entitled and unrestrained. When Do-cheol’s friend Bae (Jung Woong-in), a unionised haulier on a mission to be duly paid for work that he has done, is left in a coma from an apparent suicide attempt following an encounter with Tae-oh, the detective’s investigations will take him right to the very top, leading to an inevitable, very public showdown between these two men of violence.

‘Veteran’ is a term used ironically in the film by Tae-oh of Do-cheol’s old-school toughness – yet the real veteran here is writer/director Ryoo who, with films like Die Bad (2000), The City of Violence (2006), The Unjust (2010) and The Berlin File (2013), has made thrillingly elaborate over-the-top action sequences his long-time stock in trade. Here he adds a welcome measure of humour to the mix, whether in the bumbling efforts of Do-cheol’s colleagues, or in the detective’s toxic relationship with his wife Joo-yeon (Jin Kyung). Aided by the dynamic choreography of long-time collaborator Jung Doo-hong, Ryoo takes the audience on an exciting, often very funny ride through Korea’s social divisions, class inequalities and rough justice, Gangnam-style or otherwise. Released in domestic cinemas in August, the film has already struck a chord with local audiences, and become the third biggest grossing Korean film of all time.

Anton Bitel