Corruption has become a major theme in Korean cinema. Perhaps understandably given current events, but you’ll have to look hard to find anyone occupying a high level corporate, political, or judicial position who can be counted worthy of public trust in any Korean film from the democratic era. Cho Ui-seok’s Master (마스터) goes further than most in building its case higher and harder as its sleazy, heartless, conman of an antagonist casts himself onto the world stage as some kind of international megastar promising riches to the poor all the while planning to deprive them of what little they have. The forces which oppose him, cerebral cops from the financial fraud devision, may be committed to exposing his criminality but they aren’t above playing his game to do it.
“Entrepreneur” Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), CEO of the One Network financial organisation which is about to make an unprecedented move into investment banking, is in the middle of an energising speech to his investors. He’s booked a massive stadium with lighting and stage effects worthy of a veteran rock star and is doing his best snake oil speech to convince the ordinary people who’ve invested their life savings in his obviously dodgy pyramid scheme that he’s going to make banking great again by handing ownership back to the masses. Many are convinced by his inspirational attitude, but Captain Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) of the financial crimes division smells a rat. He knows there’s something very wrong here and is determined to bring Jin down before his exploits ruin the lives of even more innocent families just trying to make a better life for themselves.
Their way in is through Jin’s systems guy, Park (Kim Woo-bin), who’s been in on the scam from the beginning but is pretty much amoral and has been working his own angle on the whole thing. Spineless and opportunistic, Park is primed for police manipulation even if it takes him a few flip-flops before he picks any kind of side aside from his own. Kim is after Jin’s mysterious ledger which contains a host of information on his backers which would cause considerable damage to those involved and give the police the kind of leverage they need to expose Jin’s enterprise for what it really is. However, before they can spring the trap, Jin escapes with his ill gotten gains and goes into hiding leaving hundreds of innocent families who’ve fallen victim to his scams destitute, frightened, and humiliated.
Playing against type, Lee Byun-hun inhabits his sleazy, TV evangelist meets cult leader of a villainous conman with relish as he lies, cheats, steals and weasels his way out of trouble. After a potential liability is killed, Jin enjoys his crimson morning smoothie with unusual delight leaving a bright red bloodstain across his upper lip as he ironically mutters “what a shame” watching the news footage of his flunky’s death. Not content with the vast amount of money he stole by exploiting the innocent dreams of people with little else, Jin tries the same thing again abroad, taking his “wife” Mama (Jin Kyung) with him though even she seems to know Jin is not to be trusted and could turn on her at any moment. Cornered, the only words of wisdom Jin has to offer is that perhaps he made a mistake in trying to run to the Philippines, he should have tried Thailand instead.
Starring three of South Korea’s biggest actors, Lee Byun-hun, Gang Dong-won, and Kim Woo-bin, Master takes on an almost tripartite structure as the upper hand passes between the three protagonists. Systems analyst Park is mostly out for himself and switches between each side more times than can be counted before gaining something like a conscience and committing to a particular cause while Kim and Jin mastermind a cat and mouse game advancing and retreating yet stepping further into each other’s territory. The game is an ugly one. Master is a fitting and timely indictment of those who make impossible promises to vulnerable people desperate enough to take the bait in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families, yet it also fails to capitalise on its themes, preferring to leave them as subtle background elements to the cerebral games of one-upmanship and fractured loyalties between Jin, Kim, and Park. Over long at 143 minutes, Master is unevenly paced yet picks up for its Manila set, action packed finale which is out of keeping with much of what has gone before but ends things on an entertaining, upbeat note as justice is served, wrongs righted, and the truth revealed.
Master was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)