Violence and slapstick? An immensely funny film from Korea? Do my eyes deceive me? No, no they don't.
Well, no sooner have I opened my big mouth than Public Enemy grabs a firm hold of my foot and rams it soundly therein. Having commented in my previous review of Bad Guy about the seemingly bleak and depressing nature of the majority of Korean cinema, along comes this little gem to prove me well and truly wrong. Now there's a turn up for the books cough.
Don't get me wrong, Public Enemy is far from just a comedy, incorporating as it does fairly vicious serial killer elements and a large number of seemingly random yet sound beatings. For the most part however it plays an absolute blinder as a borderline slapstick police comedy. Confused? Understandable. Allow me to explain.
Detective Kang Chul-joong (Sung Kyul-gu) is having a shit day. No sooner has he nipped out of the car for a piss than his partner, who has just found out he's up for investigation by Internal Affairs, shoots himself in the head. Ever the renegade cop, Kang denies being anywhere near him at the time, but now he's under investigation too. His Captain, Uhm (Kang Shin-il), is on his case because he and his fellow detectives are failing to make the grade. A quick inspection of their desks reveals the others are at least reading golf magazines when they're supposed to be working. Kang's drawer contains nothing save for a pen. Ordered to leave and "arrest anybody", Kang roughs up various local hoods until he chases gangster Mr. Math out from under his rock, showing the audience his intimidating no-nonsense style while he's at it.
Meanwhile wealthy young investment banker and model father Cho Gyu-hwan (Lee Sung-jae) is facing a dilemma. His ailing father loaned him 1.8 billion won to invest some time ago, and now he wants it back to help save an endangered local orphanage. Trouble is Cho has just sunk the money into an investment venture that's set to make him a cool 37 billion won return on his deposit. Apparently already a little unbalanced (see his first scene where we are introduced to him masturbating furiously in the shower; always a difficult entrance), Cho decides the only thing for it is to brutally stab both his parents to death.
Having committed the evil deed, a heavily cloaked and barely recognisable Cho bumps into Kang who is taking time out from a stakeout to relieve his bowels behind a bin. Confronted by and angry Kang whom he has knocked over into his own excrement (seriously), Cho slashes the wayward officer's face and makes a hasty getaway, dropping his knife in the process. A week later after the bodies are discovered, Kang puts two and two together, vowing to bring the murderer, his own assailant, to justice by any means. Given his reputation for clumsiness, Kang's colleagues are understandably skeptical, becoming even more so when he displays the ridiculous notion that the killer is Cho, hounding the man at home and at work.
Doesn't sound much like a comedy, does it? Indeed, the central premise of Public Enemy and the acts surrounding it are far from funny, and one should perhaps feel a little guilty about finding the film so damn funny. Funny it is though, and not unintentionally either, unlike many foreign films at the moment suffering from culture clash syndrome and terrible subtitling. Not that the translation here is perfect (a cop complaining he's going to have to "take the wrap"?), but you won't care less by the time Kang starts acting up in a variety of unstable and downright insane ways.
An utterly irresponsible chap, the audience nonetheless bonds affectionately with Kang because he's essentially a good-hearted and likeable man superbly conveyed by an obviously talented actor. Laugh out loud moments are frequent and derived from such extremes as Kang's ability to make gangsters willingly throw themselves down flights of stairs and his dire grasp of mathematics. We learn as the movie unfolds that he is the single father of two young daughters, his wife having been killed in a knife attack by a burglar some time earlier. Although the film avoids all the Hollywood "grieving husband" action clich?s of the protagonist constantly bemoaning his loss, Kang's pain is nonetheless tangible through various subtle aspects of his character despite the fact he only mentions his deceased spouse once.
We share his frustration as his suspicion of the killer's identity, which we know to be true, is constantly sidelined by skeptical and weary colleagues, a morally corrupt District Attorney afraid of tarnishing the department's reputation and Kang's own natural bungling ineptitude (he proudly announces his discovery of the murder weapon only for Captain Uhm to point out he's holding the knife with his bare hands, ruining any prints from the murderer).
Lee Sung-jae is efficient but unfortunately underused as Cho, understandably but not unforgivably sidelined by Sung Kyul-gu's dominating presence. Initially an interesting character, he soon becomes little more than Mr. Generic Serial Killer as the emphasis gravitates firmly around Kang-related laughs. The psyche of a man who would kill his parents, albeit for the gain of a substantial sum, is a potentially interesting diversion but here it is paid only lip service. Given how dark a subject matter it is director Kang Woo-Suk possibly made a conscious decision to keep the atmosphere as light as possible to counter this, and considering how depressing the majority of internationally distributed Korean output has been lately yours truly is quite glad.
A difficult mix of occasional extreme violence and often slapstick comedy, Public Enemy walks a downright dangerous line and somehow comes out smelling of roses. The only major niggle I have other than Lee Sung-jae's criminal under-use is that it could do with a good twenty or thirty minutes being chopped off the running time. This aside it does very little wrong and a hell of a lot right. I may be eating the words of my last review, but damn it they're very, very tasty.
Disko has awarded this film 4 out of 5 Disko Seoul Units.
Lee Sung-jae (Cho Gyu-hwan)
Kang Shin-Il (Captain Uhm)