Sometimes, it may be difficult to understand the true significance of the moment that changed your life forever.
Available online. Approximately 119 minutes.
The movie starts out peacefully enough. Black and white footage of a tree waving in the breeze slowly turns to color as a voiceover recites a Buddhist saying:
One fine spring day, a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind. He asked his master: “Master, are the branches moving or is it the wind?”
Not even glancing to where his pupil was pointing, the master smiled and said: “That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind. It’s your heart and mind.”
Kim Sun-woo manages a pretty nice looking hotel and club called La Dolce Vita…get it? There is a problem in one of the club rooms. Sun-woo and one of his lackeys get to the trouble room and finds three guys in there. He tells them to leave. They don’t, so he beats them up.
Sun-woo is also a high ranking mobster under Mister Kang. He meets with Kang for dinner and they discuss the little incident. Those men work for President Baek, the young son of Chairman Baek who seems intent on getting in their business. Exactly what the relationship between the two groups is not that important. What is important is the relationship between Kang and Sun-woo. Sun-woo has been working for Kang for seven years and is unquestionably loyal, ruthless, efficient, and unencumbered by emotion or ego. Kang trusts him and feels like he can rely upon him like no other person, particularly some of the other clowns under him.
Kang has a young girlfriend named Hee-soo. Hee has seen her hanging out with another man, and fears that she may be cheating on him. Kang is going on a business trip to China and he asks Sun-woo to be her chauffeur and chaperone. And if he finds out that she has been unfaithful, Sun-woo is to call Kang or just kill her.
Sun-woo arrives at Hee-soo’s house and a gust of wind greets him as he gets out of the car. He does not realize it, but that breeze signals a change in him. He meets Hee-soo…well, more accurately, he meets her feet and that bit of hair over her left ear. He gives her a present from Kang, a rather goofy-looking lamp with a pair of owls on the front. She declines Sun-woo’s offer to drive her around, but takes his business card. Sun-woo goes back to his car and, eventually, sees Hee-soo get into some guy’s car. He follows them around as they eat at a restaurant and go to a dance club. The guy drops her off at her house and Sun-woo sees the guy drive off. Everything is fine.
Sun-woo gets a call from Moon-suk, one of the clowns who works with him and who was supposed to be there to take care of things the night before. Apparently, President Baek is upset at what Sun-woo did the night before and wants to meet with him. When Baek calls Moon-suk’s phone once again, Sun-woo picks it up and is rather disrespectful to Baek. Baek gets upset and lashes out at one of his underlings for chuckling at his situation, beating him pretty badly. He then asks to see a guy named Moo-sung. Meanwhile, Sun-woo lectures Moon-suk about his absence and rather goofy behavior, but it does not seem to stick. So Sun-woo goes home to his pretty nice apartment to play with his own lamp until he goes to sleep. That is not a double entendre…unless it was meant to be.
Sun-woo wakes up to a phone call from Hee-soo, who asks him to drive her around until the afternoon. They eat at a restaurant and she asks him if he is an enforcer. He insists that he simply works at a hotel, so she asks if he is an enforcer at the hotel. He says that he isn’t, and she responds that he is boring to talk to. Later on, he tries to ask her how she met Mr. Kang when she gets distracted by a lamp in a shop. Ultimately, she doesn’t answer the question.
They arrive at a recording studio and Hee-soo tells Sun-woo that he can watch if he wants to. He asks her how she will get home and she says that she can take a cab. He sits in the sound…room and watches as a string quintet (and pianist) get ready to perform. They play a rather pretty, though melancholy piece, with Hee-soo on the cello. While watching Hee-soo and listening to the performance, Sun-woo…changes. Something happens, and there is a shot of the breezy tree from the beginning.
And the moment is cut short with a phone call. Sun-woo’s employee, Min-gi, says that some mean-looking guy named Moo-sung is looking for him. Sun-woo is unfamiliar with the guy. Moon-suk also wants to talk with him, but Sun-woo is not in the mood. He arrives at the hotel to see that Moon-suk had invited Baek to the hotel supposedly to patch things up with Sun-woo and clear up any misunderstanding. Sun-woo is having none of that, which angers Moon-suk.
Sun-woo returns to the recording studio to see Hee-soo sitting by herself. He is about to walk up to her, but then another man gets to her first. Sun-woo quickly turns around and walks in the other direction before she can see him. The other man drops her off at her house as Sun-woo observes them. The other man drives off and she goes inside. All seems well, so Sun-woo drives off. Suddenly, a car comes out of nowhere and almost hits him. It takes him a while, but he suddenly realizes that that car is that man’s car. So he turns around and goes back to the house. He practically forces his way inside and finds that the man there.
Sun-woo assaults the man, Se-yoon, and shoves Hee-soo to the ground when she tries to stop him. He attempts to beat Se-yoon with a lamp, but Hee-soo gets in the way. Sun-woo takes out his phone, fully intending to call Kang. But then he sees her crying and recalls the little moments with her that he remembers. He cancels the call. He sits down and thinks for a moment. He tells Hee-soo and Se-yoon that they must never see each other again and forget each other’s existence. Se-yoon leaves.
Hee-soo tries to run after Se-yoon, but Sun-woo stops her. She yells at him to leave her alone and Sun-woo shouts (for the first time in the movie) that she has to listen to him. Hee-soo says that it is impossible for her to forget what just happened and Sun-woo stammers that he was just looking for the best way out of this. Hee-soo tells him to leave, and not expect any thanks for not killing her. She tells him that she will stay away from Se-yoon, but says that such memories cannot be erased.
After a moment of road rage against another driver and his passenger, Sun-woo drives to his parking lot and meets Moon-sung. Moon-sung tells him that nothing will happen to him if he apologizes and admits that he was wrong, but Sun-woo refuses and tells him to leave.
The next night, three guys break into Sun-woo’s apartment, assault him, and abduct him. He wakes up to find himself tied up in some sort of warehouse. Baek arrives and tells his men to cut up Sun-woo. Suddenly, there is a phone call and Sun-woo gets taken somewhere else. Baek’s men drop him off on some muddy road in the pouring rain. He sees Kang. And a bunch of his men. Somehow, Kang has found out about Se-yoon.
Kang asks why Sun-woo disobeyed his orders, saying that it is not like him. Sun-woo says nothing, looking rather puzzled. Kang, disappointed, gets in his car and leaves Moon-suk in charge. Kang calls up, asking to speak to Sun-woo one more time, to give him one last chance. He asks Sun-woo why he didn’t call when he was supposed to. Sun-woo replies that he thought that it would be best if Hee-soo and Se-yoon simply never saw each other again. Kang does not accept this reason and asks that Sun-woo be honest. Kang asks whether Sun-woo is smitten with Hee-soo, but he is perplexed by the suggestion. Kang talks to Moon-suk for a bit and then hangs up, disappointed and sad. Moon-suk and the other men torture Sun-woo for a bit, dump him in a hole, and then fill it up with mud, burying him alive.
Eventually, Soon-woo claws his way back to the surface, only to see that Moon-suk is still there. Things are going to get nuts.
It would be easy to take this story at face value and interpret it as one of a gangster who falls for the girlfriend of his boss and incurs the wrath of the organization or maybe even of a gangster who has a falling out with his boss because he could not hit a woman. A man who knows only violence has the machine turn against him when he refrains from violence for the one time in his life. These things may be true…maybe more the former, but it would be a somewhat simple reading. Kang believes that Sun-woo has fallen for Hee-soo and others seem to think so too. And maybe Sun-woo has indeed fallen for her. What is important, though, is that he does not acknowledge it. He doesn’t deny it so much as he acts like he doesn’t understand the assertion. It is not a ridiculous claim; it is a concept beyond his comprehension.
Kang may have somewhat warped views on love, but Sun-woo seems to have none whatsoever. Kang assumes that Sun-woo has never had a girlfriend and he may be right about that. Sun-woo seems to be pretty well-off. He runs that nice hotel and has a nice apartment. He has an aura of cool. Plus, the actor playing him is the guy who played Storm Shadow in the GI Joe movies and has a bit of a…um…reputation. Basically, Sun-woo could get the ladies if he wanted to. Yet, he doesn’t. When he is not at work, he seems to be perpetually alone. And he does not seem to do much except for maybe drink. Maybe he is lonely, but he seems disinterested in being with anyone. This supposed apathy towards women or love is the main reason why Kang chose Sun-woo for this task. Kang could have chosen any of his minions to look after Hee-soo, but he chose Sun-woo.
For much of the first half of the movie, Sun-woo is emotionless. He interacts mostly with people with whom he does business and treats them primarily as subordinates, superiors, or threats. Through most interactions, he remains cool and composed; maybe he gets annoyed at times, but that is it. He may be a little awkward around Kang, but that is mostly covered up by his deference. He is not cruel, he is not sadistic. He can be nice when he sees no reason not to be. Yet he brings nothing but his presence and his effectiveness. He doesn’t question or challenge Kang.
Something changes within Sun-woo when he meets Hee-soo. Is it love? It could be, but it might not be. When he thinks of her, he remembers mostly snippets; body parts and little gestures that she made. She is not really a fully-realized person for him. What she does, though, is reveal to him another way of living. She is a bit flighty and maybe foolhardy, especially for someone cheating on a mob boss. What she does do is live a full life; a life of beauty, fun, and happiness. Sun-woo may not have realized it, but he started to yearn for something more out of his own life.
When he found out that Hee-soo really was cheating on his boss, he fully intended on killing her until he revisited those tiny little carefree moments that he had shared with her. If he simply let her live and act like Se-yoon did not exist, everything could go back to normal and there would be only those happy memories. He had already soiled her carefree life with the attack, but killing her would soil those memories with the knowledge that he had killed her. It would be as if he denied himself those yearnings that he himself did not understand. Is that love? Or is that the first step on a long journey of self-discovery?
Some may complain about Hee-soo, saying that she was stupid for trying to cheat on a mob boss and that she was not all that special to begin with. Yet, that was not really the point. She is not a love interest for Sun-woo; she is more catalyst than character. It is not really a spoiler to say that she does not actually die, but neither does Sun-woo save her. She sort of fades from relevance from the film and from the two main characters. Yeah, I know; that doesn’t sound great when spelled out like that, but hey; no refrigerator.
To Kang, Sun-woo’s failure to call him or kill her constitutes a major betrayal, but one that he is still willing to forgive. Sun-woo was not simply some faceless goon. He was one of Kang’s most reliable men; a man who never made mistakes. But all men make mistakes. Maybe Sun-woo has fallen for her and it has clouded his feelings. That would hurt, but Kang can work with that. All Sun-woo has to do is apologize and acknowledge that this is the case and Kang will invite him back to the fold. All he needs to do is to say that he was wrong. He might not even be wrong, but he just needs to say it; to resubmit to Kang’s wisdom and dominance. Sun-woo doesn’t do that. Kang cannot forgive this. It is made worse by the very fact that it is Sun-woo who betrayed him. If his best and most trusted man is allowed to undermine his authority, his worst men definitely will as well. What does it say about Kang as a leader and as a man? It doesn’t even matter what Sun-woo did anymore; he has to die.
Sun-woo does not understand this. At the same time, he does not seem to acknowledge what is going on with himself. He is really feeling something. But feelings are for other people. Other people cower in fear. Other people shout in anger. Other people grin sadistically. Other people feel joy. Other people cry. Other people laugh. Other people get nervous. Other people have desires and interests. He just does what he is told to do. At least that is the case until that fateful night. Maybe this is why he never really had a woman or made any real friends. He may be rich, dashingly handsome, and confidently cool; yet he has absolutely nothing to offer beyond that. Maybe that is why Hee-soo strayed from Kang as well. They may bring material goods and status, but not happiness or understanding.
Now, however, Sun-woo feels something. He feels fear. He feels confusion. He feels sadness. He feels rage. He feels…happiness? Sun-woo can seem like just another one-dimensional mook or stoic anti-hero in the first half of the movie, but he lets loose during the second half and it is awesome. That he does not seem to understand what is happening to him makes it even better. It is wild, it is brutal, it is thrilling, and it is occasionally extremely funny.
I suppose that this is not necessarily an original story or even a thought provoking one, but it is in the details that the movie shines. It is a wonderful little character study as well as a really good action movie…as long as you remember that guns are not all that prevalent in South Korea outside of the military. If you are up for a bit of violence, I really do recommend this movie.
WTF ASIA 52 – with Guest Contributor Future ex-Mrs. Malcolm: Billa (India: 2009, approx. 155 minutes)
Free on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 53: Hospitalité (Japan: 2010, approx. 95 minutes)