Hot Blooded (Ddeu-geo-un pi), script of my on-stage introduction to its screening at the London Korean Film Festival, 2022
Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and screenwriter. In the Nineties, he co-scripted Chang Gil-soo’s I Wish What is Forbidden To Me (1994) and Kim Eui-suk’s Gun and Gun (1995) and A Great Chinese Restaurant (1999). Then he went quiet until a decade later in 2009 when he was the sole screenwriter on Chang Dong-hong’s The Man Next Door. Perhaps the best known film associated with Cheon is Song Hae-sung’s domestic dramedy Boomerang Family which screened at the London Korean Film Festival back in 2013, but Cheon did not in fact write its screenplay, but rather the 2010 novel Modern Family from which it was adapted. Which is to say that, like a gangster forced to spend much of his life absent in prison or in exile, Cheon has had only a sporadic presence in Korean cinema over the last thirty or so years, often vanishing entirely for a decade or more, only to rematerialise when least expected. Coming after a long hiatus from the big screen, Cheon’s directorial debut Hot Blooded, which he himself adapted from an original 2016 novel of the same name by Kim Un-su, is going to change all that. For with this deft, sprawling gangster epic, we see the arrival of a filmmaker fully formed and on top of every part of his material.
It is 1993. The setting is Kuam, a coastal town and avowed ‘shithole’ in the shadow of Busan. Here, under the knowing control of the elder Don Son (Kim Gab-soo), two-bit gangsters tussle over the slim pickings to be had from the local vices: table gambling, prostitution and increasingly slot machines and drugs. As Don Son puts it, “there’s so little to share in Kuam, and to get a piece of the pie, one must see blood.” Jung Woo (The Himalayas, 2015) plays Don Son’s loyal lieutenant Hee-soo – a likeable 30-year-old who thus far has largely kept his hands blood-free, preferring to settle problems with words than with violence (although he knows how to handle himself when cornered). Hee-soo’s only real ambitions are to clear his debts, to marry his fellow orphan and long-time partner In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye), and to open a modest ‘cottage’ inn on Geoje Island, in splendid isolation far from the criminal life. Yet with mad dog Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung) unleashed to stir up all kinds of trouble, and bigger neighbouring gangs muscling in to take over Kuam’s port access, Hee-soo will find himself being drawn inexorably towards internecine struggles and Machiavellian plotting that will see him simultaneously rising to the top and plunging to rock bottom.
Hot Blooded opens near its end, with Hee-soo boarding a boat for a sit-down meeting with all the Dons. As Yong-kang mischievously passes him a gun wrapped in a plastic bag, and we can see a violent event irrevocably taking shape, Hee-soo comments: “I had something back in the day, but living in the ditch, I forgot what that was.” The film retraces the gradual breakdown of both personal integrity and interpersonal relations that has led Hee-soo to this critical juncture, and to a life of loneliness at the apex of his organisation. For in a film whose plot, with all its strategic manoeuvering and sacrifice, plays out like a game of chess, Hee-soo is a pawn whose very survival must follow a path of treachery leading inevitably all the way to the king.
There are two principal themes in Hot Blooded – power and paternity – and these come neatly crashing together as Cheon explores the patriarchy that dominates Korean life. An orphan since childhood, Hee-soo looks upon Don Son as his father figure, even as he himself becomes the father figure to his girlfriend In-sook’s son A-mi (Lee Hong-nae) – but all these fatherless sons are easily manipulated and corrupted and sent down roads of destruction and self-destruction, with those who come out alive becoming the false fathers to the next generation. For while all these lost boys are desperate to find their place in a patriarchal structure – be it familial, entrepreneurial or indeed criminal – they all end up being treated only as pieces on a board, both easily movable and utterly disposable. It is a system all at once inescapable and soul-destroying – and so Cheon’s film about one man’s triumph is also a tragedy, with betrayal inscribed not only in Hee-soo’s ascent, but also in his eventual, inevitable future fall, as power is endlessly bequeathed and violently transferred.
So while Hot Blooded is a breathless, action-filled saga of crime and its moral toll, it also comes with a strong sense of noirish melancholy, as our protagonist discovers that, far from being the hot-blooded hero of his own narrative, he is a small cog in a relentless machine that leaves everyone out in the existential cold. I hope you enjoy it.
strap: Writer Cheon Myeong-kwan’s directorial debut shows small-town powerplay among gangsters as a melancholic chess game
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My programme note: Back in the Nineties, Cheon Myeong-kwan helped write Chang Gil-soo’s I Wish What is Forbidden To Me (1994) and Kim Ui-seok’s A Great Chinese Restaurant (1999). Although it has been over two decades between then and Cheon’s directorial debut (which he also adapted from Kim Un-su’s 2016 novel), the wait has been worth it.
This traces the simultaneous upward and downward trajectory of low-ranking gangster Park Hee-su (Jung Woo) from pawn to king of fictitious rundown port town of Kuam, despite his hopes of leaving with his long-term fiancée and her son for an even smaller, quieter life on Geoje Island. It is a noirish tale of dashed dreams, treacherous sacrifice and existential despair, revealing the pointless, soul-destroying play of power. The plotting is labyrinthine, the characters are multiple, but all is held together by Jung Woo’s performance as a man who, though the accidental protagonist, is no hero.
© Anton Bitel