There’s something rotten in the state of Korea. Currently the incumbent President, Park Geun-hye – daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee who helped transform the country into an industrial powerhouse – is embroiled in a potentially career-ending scandal. Still, this is, to a degree, just business as usual. For, whether it is the legacy of decades of dictatorship, a symptom of the powerful stranglehold which chaebols (or dynastic conglomerates) have over the economy, or the product of a deeply ingrained hierarchical culture, political corruption scandals have marred nearly every South Korean Presidency since the Republic’s beginnings in 1948.
Of course, what is bad for a society can be good for its films. Which is why this year’s wide-ranging London Korean Film Festival, alongside its strand celebrating female filmmakers, its retrospectives of director Lee Chang-ho and actor Baek Yoon-sik, and its showcases of blockbusters, indies, documentaries, animated features, shorts and artist videos, also finds room for a loose triptych of films that confront the corruption at the heart of Korea’s power structures. For although they were made entirely independently of each other, Woo Min-ho’s Inside Men: The Original (2015), Lee Il-hyung’s A Violent Prosecutor (2016) and Kim Sung-su’s Asura: The City of Madness all map out the close-knit intersections of the political classes, the judiciary, the police, big business, organised crime and the media within contemporary Korean society, while packaging these shared themes within the palatable guise of genre. As though ripped from the headlines of contemporary scandal, all three of these films tap right into the general public’s sense of cynicism towards the very pillars of Korean society.
In Inside Men: The Original, after peacockish cinephile gangster An Sang-gu (Lee Byung-hun), henchman to corrupt Presidential hopeful Jang Pil-woo (Lee Gyeun-young), is betrayed and left permanently crippled, he joins forces with dogged ex-cop prosecutor Woo Jang-hoon (Jo Seung-woo) to bring his old boss down – even as influential newspaper editor Lee Gang-hee (Baek Yoon-sik, in beguilingly sly form) brokers every backroom deal and pulls everyone’s strings.
Presented here in its full 3-hour director’s cut (‘The Original’), this is a thrilling tale of slow, convoluted justice, and of revenge that is more a-hand-for-a-hand than an-eye-for-an-eye – but it is also a sprawling epic, using a labyrinthine plot that spans several years to expose what a news reporter in the film calls the “deep-rooted, back-scratching relationship between politics, industry and the media,” and to show how the closed ranks of Korea’s old boys’ network are near impenetrable to any non-members. At one point, Woo recites to An that part of the Korean Constitution which concerns the equality of all citizens – but he also knows that, as an outsider, as a “hick” and as a “nobody” without connections, his outstanding record and achievements count for little in this supposedly egalitarian society. Only ‘inside men’ can advance within Korea’s closed system, and it is from the inside alone that the system can be (however temporarily) subverted.
If gangster An is an ‘inside man’ in another sense, partly realising his vengeance from within the confines of a prison, then that is the essential premise of A Violent Prosecutor. Its main character Byun Jae-wook (Hwang Jung-min), the incorruptible if excessively violent prosecutor of the title, is framed for the murder of a suspect he has been interrogating, and tricked by his corrupt superior Woo Jong-gil (Lee Sung-min) into pleading guilty. Five years later, as Woo ascends to political office, Byun concocts a plan from behind bars to see himself cleared of, and Woo tried for, the actions that put Byun in prison in the first place. To do this, though, Byun must first help quash the sentence of young con artist Chi-won (Kang Dong-won) so that Chi-won can be his agent on the outside – and he must persuade Woo’s protégé, the rising prosecutor Yang Min-wu (Park Sung-woong), to do the right thing.
Of these three films, A Violent Prosecutor is certainly the lightest in touch. This tone is set right from the ‘cartoonish’ opening credits, and continues in the film’s bombastic score, in the buddy comedy of odd couple Byun and Chi-won, and in the hilarity of Chi-won playing Korea’s élites for fools. Yet Chi-won’s antics are offset by ‘Mad Dog’ Byun’s Shawshank Redemption-like experiences in prison, and by his barely contained righteous anger over lies, cover-ups and murder, all perpetrated in the name of political (and personal) ambition. Woo is seen not as an anomaly, but as a natural product of the system in which he thrives. That system is Korean society itself, which has nurtured him and allowed him to prosper even if he is not quite the “son of Pohang” he claims to be at his campaign rallies.
Both Inside Men and A Violent Prosecutor may offer a rather grim picture of Korea’s political landscape, but they also both end on a note of redemption and hope for a better future. The same could not be said for my favourite of these three films, Asura: The City of Madness, which presents the developing (if fictitious) city of Annam as both a microcosm of Korea, and a hell from which there is escape. Indeed, Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987) is a key reference point, as protagonist Han Do-kyung (Jung Woo-sung) tries to quit his career as a police detective and to “make a new start” in politics, only to find himself trapped into double agency, with his own past wrongdoings endlessly returning to haunt him.
In return for financial help with the care of his terminally ill wife, Han has agreed to freelance as an extra-legal fixer for his brother-in-law, the City’s corrupt Mayor Park Sung-bae (an unctuous Hwang Jung-min, in a complete reversal of his rôle in A Violent Prosecutor). After one of Han’s moonlighting actions leads to the accidental death of another policeman, Han finds himself being recruited against his will by a team of prosecutors determined to end Park’s Mayoralty, even as Park’s paranoia turns increasingly deadly – and no matter which way Han turns, things keep going from bad to worse. The fixer is trapped in a scenario where no fix nor cure nor salvation is ultimately possible.
“Everyone dies, when the time comes,” says Park – and this pervasive mood of fatalism, along with Han’s voice-over narration and the dark, often rain-drizzled street locations, mark Asura: City of Madness as an Eastern film noir. Yet as the film races inexorably towards its bloody conclusion, with each scene twisting and turning relentlessly into the next, along the way we see every section of Annam society being corrupted and compromised by Park’s will to power. Kim Sung-su may be offering us a thrilling – and masterfully directed – ride, its punishing toll measurable in the bruises and scars that accumulate on Han’s face, but the writer/director’s intentions are also sociological. When we (twice) hear a cover version of ‘Down in the Hole’ on the film’s score, it confirms that this is Korea’s answer to The Wire (for which Tom Waits’ song formed the opening theme music): a thorough-going anatomisation of the cancerous rot at the very core of a society. It is also one of the very finest Korean films that I have seen in some years.
The London Korean Film Festival 2016 opens on the 3rd of November. Details of these and other screenings here.
© Anton Bitel