The title of "Gabi" is a reference to the Russian word for coffee. Apparently, in the South Korean market, coffee originally appeared as a luxury good imported from Russia. It is, rather appropriately, frequently described in the movie as having a liquor-like taste. But anyway, Ilyich (played by Joo Jin-mo) and Tanya (played by Kim So-yeon) are a couple of gangsters in the 1890's who rob Russian military trains possibly for coffee or maybe for the gold that's being smuggled with the coffee the movie never really makes it clear.
I could describe nearly any plot point in "Gabi" with the same sort of ambiguous confusion. The plot is outrageously difficult to follow, mainly because screenwriter Kim Eun-jeong shoves in a lot of generally irrelevant backstory. It was hard to guess which parts I was actually supposed to remember for future reference and which ones are only in the movie because they were also in the book. Consequently, I was never quite sure if I was actually seeing plot holes or just stuff I'd forgotten about.
Genre-wise "Gabi" eventually manages to settle on being a spy thriller, albeit not a terribly coherent one. Ilyich and Tanya have Russian names, but a Korean background, and originally they were criminals, so whose side are they on? You'd think they could at least be reliably described as being on each other's side but no, their relationship is surprisingly ambivalent even as we're clearly led to believe that the two very profoundly love each other.
If the lead actors can't even much express their chemistry with each other very well you can probably guess how hard it is to tell whether they are siding with Korean, Japanese, or Russian interests at any given moment. This ends up making the coffee-guzzling King Gojong (played by Park Hee-soon) the main sympathetic character, because he's always reacting to people with bitter paranoid anger. With the Korean court in such a lousy state it's hard to blame him for getting addicted to coffee.
Even bearing in mind that part of the tension in "Gabi" is supposed to be about ambiguous loyalties, there's a fine line between moral, ethical conflict and just not being able to tell what's going on or what anyone wants. I misidentified one scene wherein a random background character expresses sudden suspicious fondness for Tanya as being a hint that she had an agenda. Actually her emotional outburst was totally sincere, it's just that everyone likes Tanya for...some reason.
Even the historical background is very poorly sketched out. Frequent references to the invasion of Taiwan and the assassination of Queen Min are the main ways with which the movie can be clearly dated. If you don't know the history there, and if you also don't understand why King Gojong's attempts to identify Korea as an international empire are important, "Gabi" will do you no help in trying to explain or contextualize these events. "Gabi" is a major disappointment in just about every way I can think of.
Review by William Schwartz
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Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Gabi""
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