Some movies opt for a mysterious title to incite audience interest, while some movies are more up front. Assassination is pretty up front. Yet there’s so much more to it than that one noun bluntly seems to state.
Director Choi Dong-hoon returns with another big-budget rollercoaster of a film, sharing many faces with his last feature The Thieves. Also similar to his previous hit is the basic structure of Assassination, with a large cast maneuvering their way to a pivotal incident, the outcome of which sets up a third act which is unexpected, but nonetheless grows naturally out of what has been planted right from the beginning of the film.
The density of plot and characters could be a drawback for some. Within ten minutes, more than that number of characters are introduced — with more still to appear — and keeping track of everyone’s actions and motivations throughout the movie’s running time is difficult. The setting also jumps around a lot, in both time and place. A prologue in 1911 Japanese-occupied Seoul sets the scene, before leaping ahead to 1949 and a now independent Korea, then back to 1933 where the bulk of the movie takes place. While the time period settles down, the locations continue shifting around, from various foreign territories in Shanghai, to Hangzhou, to Manchuria, to Seoul. This brings many spoken languages along for the ride — Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and even some French! It’s sometimes significant, whether for plot or humourous reasons, what language is being spoken, and while it’s usually obvious it is occasionally confounding to an inattentive ear.
Such variety in location and time period brings a bevy of set design and detail front and centre and it’s astonishing how much is captured. Loads of vehicles, powered and non-powered, appear all throughout the film. A few sets, such as the jail early in the film, look a touch freshly built, but it’s a visual treat overall. The neon-highlighted haze of Shanghai is a particular standout and feels perfect for all the international intrigue brokered in its hotels and back alleys. Traditional and western influences mingle most noticeably in architecture and clothing, while the various Asian cultures are further differentiated still.
Since the new wave began to build, Korean productions have had a rep for combining disparate styles in the one film (e.g. Joint Security Area) and pulling off sudden tonal shifts that add to the film rather than detract (e.g. The Host). Assassination does both of these things. Style-wise it’s a genre-melding success. On the surface a historical spy thriller, it also features heavy doses of action-adventure and humour recalling Indiana Jones, a conclusion that could be from a western, a hint of romance, and a dramatic core binding the story together. Quite the combination and yet it all feels like it belongs. Tonal shifts are also accounted for, most obviously in a scene that begins by building on an earlier comedic situation and ends in stark numbness. This was one of two moments that caused shocked gasps from the audience when I viewed this at KOFFIA last year. The tonal shifting is stretched to breaking point, but sure gives the villains reason to be assassinated.
Not everything hangs together if examined closely and plot difficulties are sometimes glossed over to keep the story rolling. No attempt is made to explain how an armed man entered a heavily guarded building; we just see him sitting on top of a lift. So many little things are set up and paid off though that it’s pretty easy to maintain trust in the storyteller. Things like seeing a key off-handedly hidden that a character returns for later, or a pair of scissors in the foreground of a shot that will surely be of use any moment now, lead the audience deeper into every scene. A second viewing with the whole story in mind makes these skillful touches more delightful.
Not much has been mentioned about the characters and that’s intentional, as their stories are a huge part of the emotion and drama woven through the film. Two points though, for interest-tickling purposes. Hawaii Pistol may sound like a silly moniker for a hitman, but name-dropping the guy provokes much the same response as mentioning John Wick. Secondly, it’s a long way from My Sassy Girl to here, but Gianna Jun (Jun Ji-hyun) anchors the film with a layered performance (almost) entirely free of sass.
To sum up — definitely worth a watch or two. The title may be pretty up front, but doesn’t go as far as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and it’s up to you to discover why.