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It's Song Kang-ho's 'Show' All the Way

2008/01/29 | 492 views | Permalink | Source

'The Show Must Go on' a vehicle for Korean star's amazing talent

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

Kang In-gu (Song Kang-ho, "The Host", "The Secret Sunshine") is a middle-rank boss of a criminal gang. Recently, he is suffering from chronic fatigue, taken to falling asleep while caught in a traffic stop. His business is not exactly booming. His attractive wife Mi-ryung (Park Ji-young) has had it with his broken promise to open a fruits and vegetables shop after washing his hands from racketeering and extortion business. His equally attractive teenage daughter Hee-soon (Kim So-eun, "Someone behind Me") wishes he were dead. His supposed colleague Sang-jin (Yoon Je-moon, "The Host", again typecast as a mean thug) is looking for a chance to stick a knife in his gut, both figuratively and literally. The only sympathetic figure around him appears to be his childhood buddy Hyung-jin (Oh Dal-soo, "Old Boy") who now works for a rival gang.

"The Show Must Go on" comes at the end of the cycle of interesting film noir/urban crime dramas released in Korea between 2006 and 2007: "Bloody Tie", "The City of Violence", "A Dirty Carnival" and "Soo". These films all drew upon divergent genre trends and histories -- Fukasaku Kinji's dryly violent treatises on the corruption of authority, John Woo-style macho romanticism, Martin Scorsese's '70s oeuvre -- but spun their own uniquely Korean takes on organized crime as a stand-in for the cutthroat hyper-capitalist contemporary Korean society. "The Show Must Go on" is written and directed by Han Jae-rim, and those who have seen his "Rules of Dating" will not be surprised by the annoyingly "hip" (almost to the point of camp) and surprisingly honest ways he tackles the genre.

Han pushes the central gangsters-are-regular people conceit as far as he could in terms of story line, but he is not the kind of director interested in showing us gritty details of criminal life, nor does he truly engage with the moral conundrums inherent in the setup. While displaying a commendable level of control and sensitivity toward the performances, Han's sub-Dogme herky-jerky handheld camera and Cokehead-did-this montage cut is so relentless it becomes physically exhaustive. I thought it was merely a questionable stylistic choice in "Rules of Dating", but after watching 1 hour and 40 minutes of the seemingly ADD-impacted filmmaking in "Show", I am having a serious doubt as to whether director Han is capable of making a movie in any other way.

The bulk of the film's weight is in any case borne by its star Song Kang-ho, whose lead performance is nothing short of brilliant. With his dead-on-the-target portrayal of a thoroughly non-special early-1940s gangster, on the heels of his stunning supporting turn in "Secret Sunshine", Song proves again that he deserves to be declared a living national treasure by the Korean government. Song is equally proficient in effortlessly projecting life-size humor (no other Korean actor, professional comedians included, can make accidental spilling of a water bucket so uproariously funny), split-second transition in emotional expressions from pathos to self-pity and back to obtuse macho defiance, and anger and frustration as his simple desire to fit in with the upper-middle class lifestyle is met with one failure after another. And when an old-fashioned tugging-at-heartstring is called for, he delivers that, too, like gangbusters: the climactic sequence is entirely a series of reaction shots from In-gu to the videotape mail of his children and wife having a rollicking good time in Canada without him, and the change of his mood from happiness to sadness and then utter misery (all the while slurping ramen noodles) is spectacular.

Director Han seems to be commenting on the absurdity of the so-called "Wild Goose Father" syndrome (occasioned by the foreign-studies craze) here, but the sequence has such an authentic emotional wallop only because Song is in it. I can't think of any other Korean actor who could have made it work. Song is ably assisted by the perennial heavy Oh Dal-soo, whose surprisingly silky voice and clear diction is put to excellent use, and two beautiful actresses Park Ji-young and Kim So-eun, well conveying the correct pitch of love-hate relationships they have with the dunderheaded patriarch.

"The Show Must Go on" is ultimately not a very satisfying film: it's certainly no "Sopranos" or even "Long Good Friday". I must say I still prefer "A Dirty Carnival" or even "Bloody Tie", more frankly genre-bound and devoid of high-end pretensions, to this "Show", but it is worth watching just to catch Song Kang-ho turning in another of his masterful portrayals of ordinary Korean men.

☆☆☆★

2008 OhmyNews

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