What does paradise look like to you? If paradise for you looks like a bunch of stabbings, metal pipe bashings, car crashes, and the occasional shooting, then this movie is paradise.
This is one of the movies that starts the story wherever it feels like. So, here we are. A gangster named Park Tae-gu has been sent by his boss, Yang, to talk with this other gangster named Hwang. Hwang has ordered three of Tae-gu’s guys abducted, but has also mercifully decided to spare their lives so that Tae-gu can save face. So, Tae-gu and his non-abducted guys get are allowed to take back the abducted guys. But why attack them and take them in the first place? Hwang does not really answer, but treats the whole thing as an inevitability. Yang is going to get crushed for trying to go against the Bukseong gang. Chairman Doh of Bukseong had tried to recruit Tae-gu, but Tae-gu refused. Hwang considers this a death wish and says that Tae-gu is alive only because Doh still believes that he can coax Tae-gu and his crew to join Bukseong. Hwang would have killed Tae-gu and his guys were it up to him. And without Tae-gu, Yang would crumble. With that, Tae-gu leaves.
You got all that? Two gangs at odds. War seems to be looming on the horizon. That is about it.
Tae-gu goes to the hospital to pick up his sister Jae-kyung and niece Ji-eun. Both scold him for being late on such a rainy day. Lifting Ji-eun up over and over again seems to win her over, but Jae-kyung is less placated. She has a sickness and thinks that she is going to die soon. When that happens, Tae-gu will be Ji-eun’s only family. And if Tae-gu gets stabbed in some gang fight, then there would be no one to look after her. Tae-gu is concerned that Jae-kyung is saying all of this in front of little Ji-eun, but Jae-kyung argues that his niece knows these things already.
The three go to Tae-gu’s…erm…gangster car and he has them get in to be taken home by one of his underlings while he goes to get her medication. Ji-eun makes him promise to get home and not get stabbed. Tae-gu promises, and also points her to an early birthday present in the car: an iPad. And with that, he bids them farewell. He also tells his other underling, Jin-sung, to take a taxi home while he goes to get the medication.
Except, Tae-gu does not merely get the medication. He goes to a doctor to ask about the test results. She tells him that all of the tests have concluded that he is not a compatible donor for Jae-kyung. She says that this is rare for siblings, but Tae-gu explains that they have different fathers. He asks how much time his sister has left. We don’t hear the answer, but it is obviously not long.
Tae-gu is sitting in the hospital lobby when he gets a call from Jae-kyung regarding the dinner. Suddenly, she stops responding. Did she hang up?
Tae-gu finds out soon enough. There was a fatal car crash. When he drives up to the scene, he gets out of the car and just sits by the side of the road.
The double funeral takes place on Ji-eun’s birthday. Tae-gu’s guys are in attendance. When Yang Do-soo arrives with his men, he pays respects to the dead and embraces Tae-gu.
Yang speaks one on one with Tae-gu. He claims that Chairman Doh must be going senile in his old age if he could order this. Especially after all of that fawning that he did to try to poach Tae-gu. Even given the current hostilities, an enemy’s family is off limits. Still, Yang expresses worry that Bukseong will continue to overstep as long as they believe that they have the upper hand, but says that there is nothing that he can do. So, Tae-gu takes a drink and offers to meet with Doh. Yang asks what he will do. Tae-gu answers that he will do whatever Yang asks of him. After all, isn’t this what he has been wanting anyways? It’s inevitable.
Tae-gu arranges to meet with Doh at a spa. In a sauna. Supposedly, he goes there alone, while Doh has a bodyguard outside of the sauna, maybe two other bodyguards nearby, and a dozen loitering around outside of the entrance. It looks like the place has been cleared of anyone else. Doh expresses condolences and says that only a real lowlife would think of going after family. Some asshole. Doh promises to find out who did it and serve him up to Tae-gu. Tae-gu responds that the damage has been done, and no good will come from seeking vengeance. Besides, with the assurance that Doh was not involved, Tae-gu will treat the crash as an accident. Well, good. With that out of the way, Doh asks Tae-gu what he wants. After all, it was Tae-gu who asked to meet. Tae-gu asks to splash some cold water on himself first. The bodyguard blocks the exit until Doh says to let Tae-gu pass…and then he scolds the bodyguard for being an embarrassment for acting like Tae-gu could do anything while buck naked. Just relax.
Tae-gu goes to the pool outside and splashes a dish of cold water on himself. And again. And…oh.
Tae-gu goes back to the sauna, stabs the three bodyguards, and then stabs Doh.
While a dozen of Doh’s men stand around the entrance, Tae-gu washes as much blood off as he can and climbs out a window. He walks to a car where he has stashed a change of clothes and he drives off into the night. Apparently, there was some construction worker or something who witnessed him walk down the street buck naked, but who cares.
Tae-gu goes to see Yang at…is this the hospital? No, it is an airport. Whatever. Yang congratulates him and has a minion hand over a bag that includes cash, a new phone, and a fake ID. Yang also hands Tae-gu a plane ticket for Jeju Island. Tae-gu is to stay there for around a week, then hop on a ship and get to Vladivostok in southeast Russia. Huh…isn’t Jeju Island the farthest point in South Korea from Russia? Well, whatever. Yang says that China was out of the question, as Bukseong has close affiliation with the Chinese. Tae-gu does not care where he goes, but Yang assures him that he has saved all of them. He should think of this as a vacation. They bid each other farewell.
As Tae-gu is on the plane, there is a massive gang brawl. One can assume that Yang ordered an attack on the Bukseong, but it is kind of difficult to tell what is going on other than a chaotic mess of metal pipes, though it does look like Tae-gu’s minion stabs some guy.
Tae-gu arrives and waits outside the airport. He receives a phone call from his…chauffeur…who is standing only a few feet away. Tae-gu had been waiting for an associate named Kuto, but she tells him that her uncle had been tied up with work. Tae-gu is hesitant, but goes along.
And what is this work that Kuto is tied up in? Selling guns to some guys who will sell them to the Japanese. Kuto has them dismantle the guns and put the pieces inside…of fish…in order to smuggle them in fishing vessels. Having noted that Kuto is going behind the backs of both Bukseong and the Russians, the buyer asks why he is dealing directly. Why does he need cash so badly? Putting together a retirement fund? Overtly avoiding the question, Kuto tells them that they can leave.
Tae-gu arrives not long after the buyers leave. He greets Kuto and they go inside. It is a rather tense dinner. Tae-gu tries to be a gracious guest to his associate, but it is clear that Kuto’s niece, Jae-yeon, would rather he leave earlier than a week, lest whatever he is running from comes here.
Bad news for Yang. One of his minions tells him that they were unable to get to Chief Ma. Who is Chief Ma? Well, even though we had not heard of him during the past thirty minutes of movie, he had been most important target in the attack. Not only that, but Chairman Doh is still alive and in surgery.
Oh, and here is Chief Ma, giving Yang a phone call from the hospital. He threatens to cut Yang open while still alive. And then he goes to torture some of Yang’s men who got captured.
Tae-gu has barely woken up when he hears gunfire outside. He goes out to see Jae-yeon, shooting at bottles. Hitting most of her shots too. He passively observes until she puts the gun to her head. He goes over and tries to get her to stop, but it doesn’t matter, as the gun was already empty.
Yang goes to meet with a police captain named Park and shows him a box full of…ew…is that a finger? Anyways, Captain Park is not particularly sympathetic to Yang’s predicament, asking him why he started a war that he couldn’t finish. Still, he calls Chief Ma and asks to have a face-to-face.
After having once again drunken himself to sleep, Tae-gu wakes up and goes outside to see Jae-yeon unconscious in the car with a needle in her arm. Kuto runs over, pushes the needle in, puts Jae-yeon in the backseat, and yells at Tae-gu to drive.
With Jae-yeon safely in a hospital bed, Tae-gu and Kuto can relax. Kuto says that Yang owes him for letting Tae-gu stay for so long. He tells Tae-gu that he and Jae-yeon will be leaving soon as well for the United States. She has a twenty percent chance of living there after surgery as opposed to ten percent here.
Captain Park, Ma, and Yang meet for lunch, though Yang does not eat much. Ma is fine with that: less mess when he cuts Yang open. Park says, though, that since Doh is still sort of alive, and Ma managed to get a few of Yang’s men killed in retaliation, things should be settled. Ma is not feeling that, but Park starts going on about how a continued war would be inconvenient for him professionally. I am not sure whether Ma really cares, but Park continues with that tactic until he just starts yelling at Ma. All right, with that out of his system, Park sets things straight. His boss is on Yang’s payroll, so killing Yang will be very bad for Ma. So, then Ma asks Park what he proposes.
Kuto gets called to work, so it is up to Tae-gu to stick around for when Jae-yeon wakes up and drive her home. She expresses annoyance that he keeps staring at her, as if things changed now that he knows that she has a terminal illness. She suggests that they stop for something to eat.
They stop at a place where Jae-yeon says the mainland tourists have yet to discover. She tells Tae-gu that she has made peace with dying, but will miss eating the mulhoe here. Tae-gu, however, does not eat anything…or drink…further annoying Jae-yeon. He does say…eventually, that Jae-yeon handles guns well. She says that it is nothing, that she started practicing with a target in mind. She circles back to Tae-gu not drinking, telling him that it is customary to drink here. He takes a little sip, but no more, since he has to drive. Jae-yeon assures him that there are no DUI checkpoints.
Well, the cops do pull Tae-gu over and give him a breathalyzer test. Of course, they know him only by his fake ID, which is clean. So, I guess that they let him off…all that is left is to get Jae-yeon back in the car, which is not an easy feat.
Finally, Tae-gu is able to drive a sleeping Jae-yeon further. Does he know the way back to the house? In any case, he gets a call from Yang, who tells him that he will be arriving tomorrow. Tae-gu says that he has not been able to get in touch with Jin-sung or his other guys, and Tae-gu replies that they are in hiding after a botched attack on Bukseong. And that is also why Yang will be heading to Vladivostok with Tae-gu.
Of course, Yang was not being entirely honest with that phone call. Flashback to the lunch sit-down. Captain Park suggested that Yang hand Tae-gu over to Bukseong as a gesture of apology. And after Ma is done with Tae-gu, Yang will be responsible for cleaning up the mess and taking the blame for any related mishaps that may pop up later. They can treat the assassination attempt as the act of a lone rogue element on a personal vendetta. Both Yang and Ma agreed.
Well, Tae-gu’s boss just screwed him over, but he doesn’t know it yet. So, now what? Well…things go wild pretty quickly, that’s what.
The movie’s original title is actually Night in Paradise…or Paradise Night. I am not actually sure why, as there is only one real big scene that takes place at night. Perhaps it is a reference to the other three films from decades past of the same name. Or perhaps it means that Tae-gu taking revenge at the spa is paradise? The name of the spa isn’t Paradise. I don’t know.
This movie is written, produced, and directed by Park Hoon-jung. He first came on the scene as writing the screenplay for I Saw the Devil. While I did not particularly like that movie, I did appreciate that it took the well-worn blueprint of a story and injected enough little twists to the tropes surprise the viewer. And this movie kind of does a similar thing, though I do prefer it.
I feel like Park made this film for people who are familiar with these types of movies, so he either brushes past some clichés or doubles down. The whole feud between Doh and Yang is never fully spelled out, but it doesn’t really matter: they are at odds. On the other hand, Tae-gu loses both his niece and his terminally ill sister only to move in with a man with a terminally ill niece? Come on. And then, of course, there are the little twists. Not necessarily big ones, but stuff like Doh being genuinely upset at his underling blocking Tae-gu’s path. It does not upend the movie or lead to an unpredictable conclusion, far from it. This is hardly a satire or a deconstruction. But they are just enough to keep the viewers on their toes. I would rather not give away most of the other little twists, as most of them take place later on.
One thing that I have a little trouble describing is the approach to violence in the movie. I have certainly seen movies that depicted more violence, depicted more graphic violence, depicted more gruesome violence, or depicted violence on a larger scale. Yet, there is something about the…volume…of violence in this movie. I would not say that it is necessarily over the top, as it does hold back from showing things at points when it did not have to. But despite the movie playing it mostly straight, it can sometimes be difficult to avoid letting out some anxious laughter at the…volume. There is something…perhaps exhausting and draining about it, pummeling the viewer into a deadened state similar to Tae-gu’s.
There is an interesting choice made with the character of Tae-gu. Yeah, he is cool in the first sequence, even though he is on the backstep. Then he is warm and loving with his sister and niece. But after that, it is like he is numb and emotionless, only occasionally breaking into intensity during action. Is that bad acting? I don’t know, but it seems deliberate. Losing his family broke him. And even getting vengeance did not snap him out of his funk. It is almost as if he has resigned to death and is just the walking dead until then. I guess the question is whether someone can bring him out of his shell.
Enter Jae-yeon. Like Tae-gu’s sister, Jae-kyung, Jae-yeon is dying from…something or other. Without a little kid to worry about, though, Jae-yeon is free to live her life to the fullest. Or, you know, get drunk and shoot the bottles that she has emptied. Yeah, she is not really the one to get Tae-gu to love life again. If anything, her seemingly uncaring brushes with mortality gets him to at least temporarily get concerned about death, if only someone else’s. Jae-yeon’s feelings towards Tae-gu are complicated. She does worry that whatever brought him to Jeju Island will come for him and her uncle will get caught up in it.
The relationship between Jae-yeon and Kuto is a little complicated as well. There is a reason why Jae-yeon has been living with her uncle as opposed to her parents, and he feels obligated to her. Of course, that obligation has Kuto engaging in some reckless behavior, such as selling guns behind the backs of other gangs. I am guessing that Jae-yeon does not particularly appreciate Kuto remaining in the criminal world regardless of Tae-gu. She seems to have made peace with her coming demise and has little faith in this trip to the United States. So, selling guns and inviting Tae-gu to stay will only bring trouble to him. Or maybe she is simply in denial about Kuto’s gun-selling, but does not have the luxury of denying the fact that Tae-gu is right there in front of her. Perhaps he serves as a sign of the very inevitability that Hwang had told him at the start. Death was always going to come to their home on Jeju Island. Now it is here in the form of a humble Tae-gu…so what are they going to do?
If you are looking for a violent crime movie, then here is one to check out. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it puts in a few squeaks to make the ride a little more eventful.
WTF ASIA 217: Talaash – The Answer Lies Within (India: 2012, approx. 140-141 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries. I prefer the Amazon version to the Netflix version, if only for not cutting out the few seconds of intermission.
WTF ASIA 218: Ride or Die (Japan: 2021, approx. 143 minutes)