Jung Woo-sung. Jo In-sung. Ryu Jun-yeol. It’s hard to aim and miss with a bullet that is riding on the waves of these three audience-favourite names; and especially so when the shot is fired by Han Jae-rim, who both wrote and directed The King and who – following the success of his period drama The Face Reader – is apparently aiming to become one of the ultimate Korean cinema hit-makers; The King exploded all over the Korean box office during its opening weekend and earned itself a record with the biggest ever January opening in the country.
It has been said a lot that the film’s story carries more than a whiff of Scorsese, his Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, but I have to disagree. All corruption/gangster films have certain elements in common, and that is where the similarities end. The King is (at least for the better part) a likely story (you have seen the news, right?) with some typically Korean elements, where the swing of political corruption hits all the way home especially in the light of the recent political events. Who is the real ‘king of the castle’ – the king himself, or the kingmaker? Who yields the ultimate power?
That is the question that the young Park Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) poses to himself. Where the lead character of Goodfellas always wanted to become a gangster, Tae-soo, growing up in the 1980’s as the school’s lead fighter with a crook for a father, decides that the true power lies in brains, not brawn – and opts to become a prosecutor. With his newly found motivation to study (and with a very peculiar method to do so), he – through a series of events, including an accidental involvement in the democratic resistance movement – wins his goal in a big way; he graduates from a prestigious university, passes the bar exam, gets himself a chaebol daughter for a wife and finally becomes what he always wanted to be – a proud prosecutor of the Republic of Korea.
However, the reality turns out to be less than glamorous, entailing endless hours of unrewarding, poorly paid work, with far less power to it than he once imagined – that is, until he stumbles upon a case that lands him square in the heights of the political world, at a penthouse party of a clique of reporters, politicians, lawyers and prosecutors that have taken political engineering to an entirely different level; all overseen by Han Kang-shik (Jung Woo-sung), the chief prosecutor, who seems to be holding all the invisible strings of the Korean political world in the palm of his hand, deciding on the right timing to tug on each single one of them. After initially resisting, Tae-soo gives in to the temptation and joins the devil and his merry band of kingmakers. After the party, he stumbles upon an old friend who was also in attendance – Choi Doo-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) – and forges an alliance of his own. Choi now heads a group of gangsters and offers Tae-soo his full support on his way up. As time flies while our anti-hero is having fun, after a series of unfortunate events, constructed by the opposing forces to bring down the big fish, the power drunk little fish Tae-soo finds that the floor of political standing can shift quickly and viciously – especially so when you get used and discarded by those with the actual power. But that is not where The King ends.
There are so many things that this film got right. The narrative. The pacing. The sequencing. The editing. The flow of the story. The solid story arc of the anti-hero. The well-timed bits of humour that prevent the story from becoming too dark or too melodramatic. The excellent cast. It is no surprise that Jo In-sung did a splendid job in his anti-hero role, since he has done similar roles in a couple of previous movies and k-dramas; it is also not surprising that Jung Woo-sung gave the perfect breath of life to yet another Devil role – with the perfect amount of power, seductiveness, paranoia and detachment. The scene with him as Han, singing the norebang (karaoke) with one of the ultimate old-school Korean pop songs, could give a dead person life – it is in such contrast with the rest of his screen time, but it bestowed his character with a whiff of humanity. The choice to include this particular scene was simply brilliant. As was the casting of the up-and-coming young talent that is Ryu Jun-yeol – even if his character is the gangster of the bunch, his sense of loyalty and charm (one cannot help but trust his open, honest-looking face) gives the audience a character to both love and (watch it, spoiler!) ultimately mourn. His hands might have been the most bloody, but it feels as if he was among the innocent victims of the power struggle – the sadness and the rage at the loss fuelling not only Tae-soo to rise up to the challenge and fight back, but also for the audience to really start rooting for Tae-soo, something each of us was probably undecided about until that well-timed sacrifice.
It is all about the framework and the timing in The King – the plot is as well-planned as the chess moves of the key players within the story. This is perhaps where the only flaw of the film lies. It is 157 minutes long, but with its fast pacing and interesting plot lines, it feels a lot shorter. That is why the last segment of the film feels extra hurried – Tae-soo’s ascent to power, compared to the rest of the story, feels too fast and almost too easy. If it was this easy, why didn’t he go for it before? Also, director Han? Perhaps have one less dog-eat-person scene in your following film, because ugggh. But even with that, every single minute of the film, even those that are meant to pain and torture the audience, is thoroughly enjoyable, and the story sucks the viewers right in. The King truly deserves top marks.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Next Entertainment World