Yu Ji-tae

The Swindlers (2017, Jang Chang-won)

The Swindlers is all about being all about the con movie. No one in the film is meant to be trusted, though some of the characters are more sympathetic than others. The film is full of twists—the titular Swindlers aren’t a well-functioning unit, but a collection of blackmailed con artists and their corrupt district attorney boss—so someone is always either about to screw over someone else or has just gotten screwed over. How much screwing over everyone can take… well, the characters are meant to end up on a collision course. The sandbox they’re in is so small it’s inevitable, though sometimes for unrevealed reasons.

Those reveals aren’t exactly surprising, because the film invites an examination of its subterfuge; without the fun of unravelling the cons, The Swindlers wouldn’t work. More than not working, it wouldn’t exist. Writer and director Jang is very directly out to entertain, ditto his cast.

The film opens in flashback. South Koreans have just fallen victim, en masse, to a Ponzi scheme. The perpetrator escapes, with millions. Jang moves between various victims (and various kinds of victims) before settling on ostensible lead Bin Hyun. Bin’s a small-time crook, son to a world-class forger; turns out dad (Jung Jin-young) is also involved with the Ponzi guy. Bin gets a little bit of character development, mostly reactionary, then the movie jumps ahead to the present. And Bin disappears.

Instead, the film follows con artists Im Jin-ah, Ahn Se-ha, and Bae Seong-woo. Im is the gorgeous con woman who apparently likes jewelry (none of the three get any actual character details after their first two scenes). Ahn is the computer guy. Bae is the straight man. Yu Ji-tae is their boss, a corrupt district attorney who’s on a mission to shutdown the Ponzi schemer’s collaborators. Sometimes he uses his team of con artists, sometimes he uses the cops and his staff, sometimes he uses a street gang he’s also blackmailing. The film never really pauses to dwell on Yu’s villainy. But it’s considerable, especially as the film progresses, as he adds greed to his list of sins. Once hundreds of millions of won are in play, Yu becomes even less trustworthy.

Of course, the alternative is to trust Bin, who eventually aligns himself with Yu and team to take out the Ponzi schemer, who’s too smart to come back to Korea so instead he sends straight-edge stooge Park Sung-woong. Im ends up with the job of gaining Park’s trust, leading to some rather amusing sequences. Park and Im work well off each other; no one else in the film really has the opportunity to work up any rapport. So it’s nice they’re so good together.

Though it’s never clear how Ahn and Im, in particular, operate in such a dangerous world. Bae’s a brute and Bin and Yu are dueling masterminds, but Ahn and Im are kind of just nice people. Sure, they’re con artists, but they lack the temperament for all the potentially perilous situations they’re in.

Again, Jung doesn’t really care. He just wants Swindlers to amuse and he succeeds. Ahn and Im are both perfectly good. Bae’s good. Bin’s really likable. Choi Duk-moon’s hilarious as one of the marks. Yu’s not likable, but he’s a pleasant bad guy to follow around. He’s always got to be on guard with his team, which somehow gets him some sympathy. For as long as the movie needs it before things get more intense, once the money score aspect of it gets introduced. Because everyone’s got a different agenda they’re trying to achieve.

Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Swindlers.

The film’s technically solid. Jang’s not a great director by any measure, but he’s competent at directing the actors through the various plot twists. Their general likability makes it work. Nice editing. The music is a little much but composer Bang Jun-seok seems to understand the film needs help and goes all out to provide it. If Jang were a better director, the music would be way too much. But its enthusiasm is good, given the circumstances.

The Swindlers is slight. It’s also consistently amusing and has a great pace. It’s cute. Not in a pejorative sense at all, but like many of its cast members (Bin, Im, Ahn, Park), it’s just cute.



Written and directed by Jang Chang-won; director of photography, Lee Tae-yun; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Sung Chang-Yeon; released by Showbox.

Starring Bin Hyun (Hwang Ji-sung), Yu Ji-tae (Park Hui-su), Im Jin-ah (Choon-ja), Bae Seong-woo (Ko Seok-dong), Ahn Se-ha (Kim), Park Sung-woong (Kwak Seung-geon), Choi Duk-moon (Lee Kang-suk), and Jung Jin-young (Hwang Yoo-suk).

Attack the Gas Station! (1999, Kim Sang-jin)

I’ve lost the desire to visit South Korea.

I’m not sure how to describe Attack the Gas Station! I suppose it’s a crime comedy, except the audience is supposed to laugh at the victims. The film lionizes its criminals–who spend the near two hour running time assaulting children, attempting the occasional rape and generally humiliating everyone they can.

But it’s okay, the filmmakers say, because the squares deserve it. The children–teenagers, I guess–all have part-time jobs, which makes them lame. The woman deserves to be raped because she’s a materialistic bitch. Everyone else is really lame too. But not our heroes. They’ve been mistreated–whether by loan sharks, teachers, coaches or parents–so it’s okay they’re criminals.

Oddly, they spend lots of time beating up other criminals–those are real “bad guys” though, who apparently don’t have social reasons for their disfunction.

Sitting and suffering through Attack the Gas Station, it occurred to me I’ve never seen a film more pro-violence. Any of those popular American films accused of glorifying crime and violence? They have nothing on this one.

Kim’s direction is, at times, sublime. When it goes over the top, it fails. But it’s very well-directed for about the first half. Really good performances from Lee Sung-jae and Park Yeong-gyu. The only bad performance is Kang Seong-jin.

It seems unaware of its general violent misanthropy and more specific misogyny, but I’m not sure if that ignorance is a good thing.



Directed by Kim Sang-jin; written by Park Jeong-woo; director of photography, Choi Jeong-won; edited by Ko Im-pyo; music by Son Mu-hyeon; produced by Lee Kwan Soo; released by Cinema Services.

Starring Lee Sung-jae (No Mark), Yu Oh-seong (Mu Dae-po), Kang Seong-jin (Ddan Dda-ra), Yu Ji-tae (Paint), Park Yeong-gyu (Gas station owner), Jeong Jun (Geon-Bbang), Lee Yu-won (Ggal-chi) and Lee Jeong-ho (Meek man).

Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)

Thanks to Joint Security Area, I was leery of Oldboy going in. While Park Chan-wook has a large fan base, all JSA did was convince me they weren’t seeing the same movie. Finally, after Oldboy, I can understand why he has the fan base… and it’s unfortunate.

Park had his big revelation ending to Joint Security Area and it felt inorganic. Oldboy‘s big end reveal sequence does feel organic, but it also feels incredibly manipulative. It’s sensationalist–evidenced by the intentional lack of resolution to it. It’s an either way ending–maybe from the source manga–but also maybe to appeal to that now popular sentiment of an ending like Oldboy‘s being cool because it’s ambiguous. What Park does in Oldboy is deceive the viewer for the film’s entirety, then pat himself on the back at the end. It’s a safe, immature ending. There’s an analog to a John Sayles film–I can’t reveal which one because it’d give away Oldboy‘s conclusion–but the two are world’s apart. Sayles works through the sensationalism to the human reality of the situation and tries to reconcile. Park just tries to be cool. Guess who’s a more popular filmmaker (and guess who’s a better one)?

But what’s strange about Oldboy–I checked with a friend, who said it was in the three to four range… and it was until the Seven slash Unbreakable ending–is Park’s great direction. With the early exception of a very standard umbrellas from above (another Seven reference), Park’s Panavision direction is fantastic. There’s a long fight scene, panning across it, and it’s a wonderful use of the frame. Park’s panning, actually–there’s a lot of it–is maybe the best panning I’ve seen. He does it for tone, he does it for effect, he does it for action. Even at the end, as the film’s crumbling, he’s got this great digital composite shot. It’s a little too clean looking; still excellent.

The music–by Jo Yeong-wook–is an essential component. More than any of the other technical aspects (the editing is good, but the cinematography, while competent, lacks any personality), the music makes Oldboy. The music has a lot to do–combined, it and Choi Min-sik’s voiceover narration (present tense, which is a little odd, but given the film’s manga roots, not surprising), make up the majority of Oldboy‘s exposition. It works–a little awkwardly, a little painfully hip at times–but it does work.

So, in reality, not many of the film’s actors have a lot of acting to do. Choi gives a fantastic physical performance, but it’s physical to the point of a Buster Keaton performance… without the close-ups. He gets to define his character through the voiceovers. Kang Hye-jeong’s character’s allegiances and motivations are in constant question, so she never gets to flesh out her role. She does a fine enough job, but Park doesn’t really ask her to do anything except be sweet and vulnerable. The real stellar performance is from Yu Ji-tae, who gets to run off with the film after a certain point. Park visibly realizes Choi’s character is ruined–in terms of giving Choi anything interesting to do–after the big reveal, whereas Yu gets to become the best Bond villain ever.

While the film does appeal in its shock value trendiness to American audiences, Oldboy is definitely a reaction to the Korean film. Much of it feels like an intentional comment on the Korean romantic drama, only distorted and cynically packaged. As for the originality… again, I’m afraid a glib comparison would reveal the ending… it’s impossible, for me, right now, to know what Park took from the manga and left.

Oldboy‘s very much about watching Choi’s quest. But his quest is very much a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, in the original sense, and it’s a fairy tale without a reward at the end, which always seems to be the thing filmmakers don’t want to acknowledge the form, by definition, requires.



Directed by Park Chan-wook; written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung and Park, based on a story by Tsuchiya Garon and the manga by Minegishi Nobuaki; director of photography, Jeong Jgeong-hun; edited by Kim Sang-beom; music by Jo Yeong-wook; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; produced by Kim Dong-ju; released by Show East.

Starring Choi Min-sik (Oh Dae-su), Yu Ji-tae (Lee Woo-jin), Kang Hye-jeong (Mi-do), Ji Dae-han (No Joo-hwan), Oh Dal-su (Park Cheol-woong), Kim Byeong-ok (Mr. Han), Lee Seung-Shin (Yoo Hyung-ja) and Yun Jin-seo (Lee Soo-ah).

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