The 12th London Korean Film Festival: Master Review

In the world where corruption and scams have become a multilevel maze, it is hard not to notice that the contemporary film industry started making more films that expose the current state of the world’s society, including politics, juridical system and commercial establishments. South Korean cinema is one of those tools that bring the aforementioned topics to light (The King, Inside Men, The Unjust, The Scam, Eden).

Master is the new production from the writer-director Cho Ui-seok (Cold Eyes, The World of Silence). The film, according to Cho, was inspired by real events which are, at the present time, occurring in the Korean society. I have not managed to find out the particular ones he was talking about, what with the many ongoing complex corruption cases in the country, including the one involving Choi Soon-sil, a close friend to President Park (she apparently used their relationship to force companies to contribute to two foundations, and decanted the money for personal use) and the one with the Head of Samsung embroiled in one of the biggest bribery cases; but it seems that there were similar affairs that prompted Cho to make Master, an investigative crime thriller.


The film depicts the story of Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), a CEO of One Network Inc., who only cares about the profit and little about the impact on the surrounding society. In addition to that, Master tells the story of Kim Jae-myung (Kang Dong-won), a dedicated and morally principled detective who works for the Financial Crimes Unit and is quietly – along with his team – investigating Jin’s criminal activities. He intends to – in one swell swoop – put Jin behind the bars and get to the potentially corrupted politicians. There is also Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin), the one who created the secret computer programme for the financial swindler Jin and who now enjoys the VIP pyramid scheme of One Network Inc., becoming one of the closest people in the criminal’s clique. And with these stellar A-list actors, Master becomes a duel between good and evil.


After months of investigating Jin, Kim and his right hand, Shin Gemma (Uhm Ji-won), decide to use Park; the detectives are aware that the young man is an easy target to manipulate. They blackmail Park with a prison sentence as they think that this might help them nail Jin. Park agrees, but – surprise, surprise – he also has an agenda of his own. With Jin unaware of Park’s betrayal, he moves forward with his biggest scam of all. When Kim is about to arrest Jin, the criminal manages to escape to the Philippines where he plans his next move. Some of the scenes are, unfortunately, detached from the core narrative; it feels like the film’s director rushed through the first part of the film to move to another one, which made the storyline slightly dull and chaotic.

The first part of the film is also very generic; with its slow pace, it made me fidget in my seat. I told myself that there must be something good about this film… and yes, there is. In its final 20 minutes, the film turns into something exciting: a gripping car chase and a bit of suspense save the film; that said, the good pace by the end of Master was not enough to make me thrilled about the whole production.


The second part of the film feels like you are watching a different movie; the plot changes and with the lack of a proper character development, and with repetitive scenes, you only wish for a small miracle to happen. Luckily, as mentioned before, Cho Ui-seok saves the day with the fast-paced climax scene. Undoubtedly, it was good to see a couple of tough ladies in Master, both ‘fighting’ on the opposite sides of the law; Uhm Ji-won portrays a clever and strong-minded detective and Jin Kyung is a sinister criminal who helps Jin  run his company. The top-notch actors have also rescued Master from becoming a hideous production.

Lee Byung-hun’s performance as the sophisticated, rich, ominous and greedy Jin is sublime; there is no doubt that Lee can deliver well. In addition, Kang Dong-won is equally great! He is brilliant, convincing and adds his own style to Kim’s character. Kim Woo-bin is decent as the young Park, just decent; nothing more, nothing less.


In all honesty, I am tired of South Korean cinema tackling corruption in their films. It is all the same! Generic, overrated and unexciting at times. Yes, there are a few productions which are great, there is no doubt about it, but recently, there have been more mediocre ones than good ones. Moreover, these films – most of them – do not offer any solutions to the problem. For some, Master might be a ‘feel-good’ film; however, to me, it was just another average film about the dark side of the South Korean society. It is sad to see that Master did not surpass the last Cho’s action thriller Cold Eyes, which – in my opinion – was one of the best thrillers of 2013.

Rating: Two-star-rating

Written by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Sanja Struna

All photos © CJ Entertainment

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