Violent but tender Korean tale of an unwitting prostituted abused yet adored by a street thug. Difficult but worthwhile.
I'm sure that every now and again the Korean film industry must chuck out the odd comedy or two, but given the likes of Shiri, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and now Bad Guy you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Like the other films mentioned this is part of Metro Tartan's Asia Extreme season in cinemas, a schedule apparently designed to convince you Korea is a bleak land of shattered dreams and psychopathic depressives. Like Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Bad Guy is certainly far from uplifting, but it's also rather fortunately an extremely enjoyable character showcase.
Sun-hwa (Seo Won) is a young middle-class college girl studying art who one day happens upon gang leader Han-gi (Cho Jae-Hyn) sitting on a bench outside her place of study. Soon after her boyfriend arrives, the apparently mute Han-gi strolls on over and forces himself upon Sun-hwa, much to her beau's disdain and that of several passing soldiers. After taking a fair old beating, Han-gi sets about shadowing the young couple, studying Sun-hwa's movements and ultimately engineering a situation whereby the young girl is accused of stealing from a wealthy man in a library. Forced to repay her debt by agreeing to what is essentially a contract of prostitution with her loan shark, Sun-hwa finds herself working as a hooker for Han-gi's boss, a middle-aged former prostitute for whom Han-gi acts as muscle.
The crux of the film lies with Han-gi's inner struggle against his own demons as he finds himself gradually falling for Sun-hwa yet compelled to abuse her as all those around her do likewise. Jae-Hyn's acting is exemplary throughout, a particularly impressive feat when for almost the entire running time he has no dialogue. A large scar on his throat indicates a previous wound from some unmentioned encounter, and when he does eventually speak it is with a strained, high-pitched squeal that explains his decision to remain silent. For the remainder of the movie the actor relies entirely on facial and bodily conveyance of his turmoil, and it really is to his immense credit that it is mostly his performance which kept this reviewer rooted in his seat for the entire duration.
The young Seo Won also turns in a fine performance which, although not quite the powerhouse of knife-edge emotion her co-star illustrates, is still a powerful portrayal of a young girl trapped in a hellish state of penance for a minor sin from which she has no avenue of escape. Initially psychologically ruined by her early sexual encounters with various members of the paying public, Sun-hwa soon develops a drug-like dependency for her trade that sees her accept and then revel in her fate, eventually to the disdain of her overlooked colleagues.
Although the setup is perhaps a little hard to swallow (Han-gi's plan is too clinical and effective in frankly unlikely circumstances), the dynamic between the two stars is nothing short of morbidly compulsive. Jae-Hyn's dominating performance as a man who doesn't have the slightest idea how to handle his emotions is surprisingly sympathetic and the stuff Oscars are made of, and it's quite something to witness his overload near the film's final? as he takes exception to his friend's treatment of Sun-hwa.
Like the setup, the final reel seems oddly out of touch with reality, but then given the hyper-intense emotional strain our two protagonists endure throughout the rest of the running time it's perhaps forgivable. Director Kim Ki-Duk exerts a firm and steady hand over the proceedings, reigning in the potentially explosive narrative to just the right side of shock value and allowing the two leads to play around instinctively with their characters. There are no flashy editing techniques here, just a refreshing return to simple motifs like the recurring image of reflections and glass that add much needed subtlety to an otherwise difficult narrative.
Bad Guy isn't exactly the ideal date movie, but it has enough veiled tenderness to ensure you won't want to slit your wrists immediately upon exiting the cinema. Another plus point is that it features a masterclass in improvised weaponry, from origami knives (more effective than you'd imagine) to the best way to impale someone on half a broken sheet of plate glass. Always handy knowledge round my way...
A slow-burning, sometimes violent sometimes tender tale of love and the tragedy of circumstance, Bad Guy should be compulsory viewing for anyone who likes the daring approach of modern Asian cinema without the clich?d Hollywood hooker-with-a-heart softening at the edges. Difficult but utterly rewarding, this is a movie that will grow on you.
Craig Disko has awarded this movie 4 out of 5 Arbitrary Disko Units.
Seo Won (Sun-wha)