By now it should come as no surprise that South Korea makes some damn fine films. In fact, if there’s anyone out there consistently living up to the U.S. action blockbuster in terms of content if not money, it’s definitely South Korea. The 2013 offering, The Suspect, directed with a controlled hand by Won Shin-yeon (Seven Days), not only is a thoroughly exciting action movie but it’s also a better-than-decent espionage thriller, a little bit Robert Ludlum, a little bit John Le Carré.
In fact, if we’re talking cold-war spy films ala Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, South Korea and its political and social relationship with North Korea could be considered the last legitimate setting for this kind of story. Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) is a defector. Once an elite Special Forces operative for his government, he is now for all intents and purposes living quietly and simply somewhere in Seoul, working as a cab driver and avoiding the attention of a well-meaning journalist (You Da-in) doing a documentary on defectors’ lives and living conditions.
Fair enough. After the life he’s had, he doesn’t want any trouble and besides, he’s kind of busy looking for the man who killed his wife and child – another North Korean also living somewhere in the city. His under-the-radar existence all begins to unravel however the night he drops an important client – a rich businessman with ties and sympathies to Pyongyang – home and realises his super-spy spidey sense is tingling. Before he knows it, he’s up to his eyeballs in spy games, racing to stay one step ahead of South Korea’s intelligence agency and the driven (and uber-manly) spy hunter, General Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon) all the while still looking for his own target, who it just happens is under the protection/employment of the same people he’s hiding from.
As in all good spy thrillers, the whole thing hinges on an object of ridiculous value or power that everyone wants that the hero unknowingly has, but just because you know the formula doesn’t mean it’s boring. What Won and his scriptwriter Lim Sang-Yoon have managed to grasp that a few Cantonese action films I won’t name from the last several years or so didn’t, is that it doesn’t have to be overly complicated to be exciting. All you need is a hero the audience can sympathise with and cheer for, a villain who drives the story (and ideally has some believable motivation), and a source of tension between them – in this case this tension is generated, Bourne Trilogy like, by a single incredibly resourceful guy running from pretty much everybody everywhere. Around that all you really then need to fashion (okay, yes, that’s way more complicated than I just made it sound) is the usual pillars of good cinema – direction, cinematography, choreography, acting, sound.
That the hero in question is a North Korean is an interesting take. One might wonder what kind of message the film is trying to articulate, but at the very least it’s not “South Korea is Good, North Korea is Bad”, and in the end, as long as the pace is cracking, does the underlying message really factor in in terms of entertainment? Because The Suspect is entertaining. Hugely. Suspension of disbelief, always the deal-maker/breaker between a terrific action film and an average one, is reserved in this film for the little things (hello South Korea, workplace bullying isn’t as okay elsewhere as it used to be; let’s maybe tone down the machismo a teeny bit?) and that’s no bad thing. Everything else is familiar territory and easily grasped by western audiences.
Concepts like corruption, betrayal, and not everyone and everything being exactly as it seems up front, is ground that any successful U.S action movie you care to name has occupied comfortably in the past, and The Suspect follows in these steps with supreme confidence and the polish to back that confidence up. The fight scenes are, dare I suggest it, spectacular; the chase scenes involve a satisfying degree of random destruction in narrow streets; and the emotion is appropriate in all the right places. The film even manages not to take that final overly sentimental dive and instead lets the pictures do the talking, as it should. If not for the overuse of Shaky Action Camera this would probably be a ten out of ten, and let’s face it JJ Abrams consistently overdoes the Artificial Lens Flare and everybody excuses that, so really the criticisms on this movie are close to non-existent.
The Suspect is screening as part of KOFFIA and is up-coming in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Check the website for screening times and tickets.