What better way to add a little authenticity to your movie than to unmask injustice live on camera? Lee Jin-ho’s indie action drama Action Hero (액션히어로) is a loving tribute to classic Shaw Brothers but also takes aim at the inequality at the heart of the contemporary society as the virtuous hero who says he just wants to be Jackie Chan starts a mini revolution in the student body after exposing the corrupt practices of their institution.
Signalling his intentions early on, Lee opens with the “GB” “Golden Brothers” logo and a lengthy martial arts sequence spoken entirely in Cantonese with a classic Shaw Brothers-esque titles card, but as it turns out this is all an anxiety dream as the fearless hero finds himself unable to save a hostage because he cannot answer a question from the upcoming civil service exam. Dreaming of becoming an action star, Joosung (Lee Seok-hyung) decides to sit in on a film class which is where he meets Chanyeol (Lee Se-joon) who shows him a copy of an action movie shot by a former student, Sunna (Lee Joo-young), 10 years previously. Joosung decides to make his own film too and when he and Chanyeol accidentally come across a blackmail letter threatening to expose their professor’s falsification of records in order to admit the sons of wealthy men decide to stakeout the drop location hoping to apprehend the professor and the blackmailer and make it a part of their movie.
Ironically enough, the previous Action Hero film had been about a culture of sexual harassment as Sunna herself starred as a martial arts avenger saving a young student from a lecherous teacher. 10 years on however Sunna still hasn’t finished her postgrad programme and is stuck as a teaching assistant working part-time at the campus coffee shop. Her colleague Jae-woo (Jang In-sub) is desperate for cash because he’s sick of this life and wants to open a friend chicken restaurant. Even Joosung is filled with despair for the future, working hard to pass the civil service exam even though it’s not something he actually wants to do. Meanwhile, the professor has been taking kickbacks so that chaebol sons with no talent can attend the university while their parents “support” from the sidelines. Perhaps conflicted in her actions, the offer of a promotion to department chair is enough to silence any qualms she might have hand while she’s eventually forced to confess all to the dean who is about to celebrate his 23rd re-inauguration which doesn’t exactly scream a commitment to democratic values.
Yet through their “investigations” Joosung and Chanyeol discover that the institutional corruption in play was largely an open secret, so commonplace as to be dismissed as just the way things work. The justice-minded Joosung wonders why no one does anything, hoping that the students will eventually wake up to what’s going on and begin asking questions while wondering if they simply lack the “passion” to become their own kind of action heroes and demand integrity from their governmental body. Sunna, meanwhile, fed up with her impossible circumstances feeling as if she’s wasted too much time on Hong Kong cinema picks a different, not quite altogether altruistic path but later recommits herself to exposing the admissions fraud and corruption which go right to the heart of their institution.
Lee continues to pay homage to the classic kung-fu movie with old school martial arts and use of freeze frame, Joosung wearing his Shaolin-style yellow top and Chanyeol at one point dressed as a classic kung fu master complete with long white beard only to discover themselves swept into a conspiracy deciding to unmask the injustice at the school. Then again, perhaps one action hero isn’t really enough to counter such ingrained corruption or the idea that this kind of impropriety has essentially become normalised and should just be accepted. Thanks to their adventures, each of the avengers is jolted out of their sense of inertia and powerlessness, Sunna realising she doesn’t need to let herself be exploited by her boss and can take control of her own future while Joosung and Chanyeol derive new hope for the future in squaring off against injustice. “The future is unclear, let’s persevere because we have each other” Joosung reflects in Cantonese on seeing the beginnings of a revolution on campus vowing to complete Action Hero 2 in the hope of a better tomorrow.
Action Hero streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)