I have said previously that film remakes are often problematic. When I first heard that Johnnie To’s crime drama Drug War (2012) was to be remade as a South Korean production, I’ll admit it wasn’t joyous news (at least it stopped Hollywood from turning it into a Bourne movie). But a good trailer and a strong cast gave me some hope. The latter wasn’t misplaced and Believer is actually an excellent crime movie. Director Lee Hae-yeong has done a great job in transferring the HK-China production to the criminal world of South Korea. It covers the main bases and then goes on to create its own gripping narrative. And that is no mean feat, considering how good To’s original feature was.
Believer takes its time in establishing the Drug War story-line, as a revenge scenario is initially introduced following the death of a police informer at the hands of an elusive criminal entrepreneur named Mr Lee. He plans to become “bigger than Samsung” through a deal to supply methamphetamines to Mainland Chinese crime gangs.
An explosion in a meth lab sees many deaths — and a survivor who agrees to reveal to the police the identity of the notorious Mr Lee.
As with To’s pic, the relationship between the head of the drug squad, Wan Ho, and the informer, Ruk, is riven with distrust. Ruk is played by Ryu Jun-yeol (The Thieves) who gives a chilling performance of substance and guile, as he keeps one step ahead of the police, the audience and even himself. Ho Jing-woong is memorable as Wan Ho, an obsessed cop pursuing the wraith-like Lee.Other supporting actors well worth mentioning are Cha Seung-won, a corporate god-botherer who might just be the chosen one. The late Kim Joo-hyuk (who died in a car accident shortly after filming had finished) is a standout character in a standout sequence as an eyeball-chewing Shanghai gangster. But my favorite is Kim Sung-ryung as the “Lady in Red”, who has the best delivered line in the movie when she succinctly describes her ex-employer as being “the devil”.
Fans of the original film will appreciate seeing the return of the “mute brothers”, but this time around as a deaf teenage brother and sister, whose love of the criminal life is nearly palpable.
As you would expect, the action content is well choreographed and brutal — and a tad tongue-in-cheek at times as seen in a protracted Scarface-like gun battle which appears to be taking place on dry land, not on a container ship.
It’s worth pointing out that between the two films, politically, there is a small but significant difference. With Drug War the threat to the population was external, as the cabal of drug dealers were all non-Mainlanders. In China’s authoritarian one-party state direct lethal action is the only way to counter this public scourge. But in Believer Lee Hae-yeong shows the same threat to be internal, a result of economic development at any cost for the previous nearly forty years. There’s a moment in the film where the police question the lack of big business oversight by government, as well as a media which has been tamed by the corporate giants. Interestingly, both film-makers conveniently avoid the fact that such criminality can only occur with the involvement of corrupt bureaucrats in the official and commercial spheres.
Technically, the film is first class with music and cinematography enhancing the atmosphere and action. A bombastic score works well in this pic. The DOP, Kim Tae-kyung, captures the slick and shiny darkness of the Asian nights and corporate silos. We also experience the industrial side of crime: the toxic chemicals, the grime, the punishing work, the violence — and the ever-present fear.
My only criticism of Believer is that ultimately it offers one plot twist too many, and although entertaining it clearly doesn’t bear scrutiny.
The movie is cleverly book-ended with an opening scene in Norway and the closing sequence in this wintry, rural wasteland. It’s a near perfect conclusion which captures the essence of the nihilism of the illegal drug trade. I have noted elsewhere that this passage of film could have been tailored from a similar finale in To’s Drug War which was set on the Northern Chinese border — and was cut from the release by China’s censors. Either way, it’s a brilliant ending.