Ma Dong-seok

Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-tae)

According to the opening titles, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is based on a true story, which is—I assume—why it takes place in 2005. The story, about a cop (Kim Mu-yeol) and his least favorite gangster (Ma Dong-seok) teaming up to take down a serial killer, comes off like a seventies update of M. But not for any good reasons. I mean, Park Se-seung’s cinematography is fine but the piss yellow lighting on the night scenes (and the film’s got a lot of them) would look better if it were set in the seventies. Along with Jo Yeong-wook’s score, which is so generic it sounds like they bought a bunch of royalty-free music tracks. Though maybe if the direction was better it wouldn’t matter. A lot of the time during the film, you wonder what it would be like if the direction were just a little bit better.

As a director, Lee is a low mediocre. There are a few times, especially with car shots for some reason, he dips below mediocre and you can’t tell if the shot’s his fault or if it’s Park’s fault. Doesn’t really matter, because as a writer Lee is a low mediocre too. Devil runs a somewhat lengthy 109 minutes. There are long unpleasant stretches; not when Lee’s establishing a high level of violence in the first act (which he then never matches or even approaches again), but when there’s a lot of exposition with the cops. See, Kim is a super cop but only because he’s not on the take like his boss (Yoo Seung-mok, who does better work than the role deserves). It’s not like he’s smart. He only figure out there’s a serial killer because everyone else is stupid and lazy and besides maybe he wants to impress CSI Kim Gyu-ri, who’s in the movie to give it a single female character. There’s so little chemistry between the two they could be siblings (I came up with that joke before I realized they had the same surname). Actually, outside their credited character names, there’s nothing in the film to disallow that relationship—Lee’s a really, really low mediocre writer. 109 minutes and there’s not an ounce of character development in the script. Bit players with funny lines have more depth than the main cast.

But it doesn’t matter because it’s got a good hook—the killer, played by a really effective Kim Sung-kyu, is scary and dangerous. See, he rear ends cars and then kills the drivers. Cop Kim figures it out because CSI Kim isn’t good enough at her job to notice the scuff marks on the back of the car. It’s okay because neither are any of the male cops. Only Kim is good enough. Because he’s better looking than everyone else and he’s not on the take. And he’s likable. He’s not charming, not with Lee’s writing and direction, but he’s likable. Kim can handle the trifling super cop bravado stuff. He just doesn’t have a character.

Pretty soon after the serial killer gets started and Kim’s ideas get shot down, gangster Ma gets attacked. By the serial killer. Only Ma is a kickass fighter, built like a tank, and able to throw people around. Now, during the attack sequence, it should have been clearer but Devil’s secret power is editors Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu. It isn’t clear because Ma’s such a badass you think you’re just watching this great action scene but then, later on in other action scenes, it becomes clear Heo and Han are doing a beautiful job cutting it. And somehow Lee, who’s got some super bland Panavision composition during the exposition (it shouldn’t have been shot so wide but it’s now the norm since it no longer takes work or talent to shoot so wide), knows what shots to get during the action scenes to allow Heo and Han to make it pretty.

Very strange.

But good, because it pays off in the third act, which goes on way too long. And in the second act, when there’s a great fight scene with Kim and Ma teaming up. Really good fight scene.

The film’s super power—not it’s secret power, but it’s obvious power—is Ma. He’s great. Even with a razor thin part and a questionably competent director, Ma turns in a phenomenal performance. Sometimes you just sit and wonder what it would be like to see Ma directed with ability. He knows what he needs to do in a scene, even if Lee seems to have no idea.

Still, while Ma’s great, it’s not a great part. Devil shortchanges him. Ma’s a super star without a super star part.

So there are some significant caveats, and it goes on forever because Lee’s narrative storytelling chops are rough… but Devil’s fine. It’s engaging thanks to its cast and the plot hooks. And that editing. That gorgeous, gorgeous editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Won-tae; director of photography, Park Se-Seung; edited by Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Jang Won-seok and Seo Kang-Ho; released by Acemaker Movieworks.

Starring Ma Dong-seok (Jang Dong-soo), Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok), Kim Sung-kyu (Hong Gil-dong), Choi Min-cheol (Kwon Oh-sung), Yoo Seung-mok (Captain An), and Kim Gyu-ri (Cha Seo-jin).


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