The Roundup (범죄도시 2, Lee Sang-yong, 2022)

Force of justice Ma Seok-do returns five years after The Outlaws to right more wrongs in jet-setting action comedy, The Roundup (범죄도시 2, Beomjoidosi 2). By this stage in his career, actor Ma Dong-seok has succeeded in creating a persona for himself as a loveable bruiser whose violence is just a way of being and always in service of a greater good. These are qualities very much in play as Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) finds himself defending the interests of Korean citizens abroad against crooks the cops failed to catch at home.

Seok-do is however in the dog house for being accused of using excessive force in the papers after neutralising a hostage incident in a convenience store. To keep him off the front pages, the higher ups decide to send him on a mini mission abroad bringing home a Korean fugitive who has apparently turned himself in to the Vietnamese authorities. Given that this is quite an odd thing to do and the criminal’s explanation that he was suddenly overcome with guilt and wanted to repay his debt to society doesn’t ring true, Seok-do smells a rat. As he discovers, it all points back to the kidnapping and murder of a rich man’s son by vicious gangster Hae-sang (Son Seok-koo) who preys on unsuspecting tourists. Rather than get the police involved, the boy’s father has decided to hire a bunch of mercenaries to take revenge further destabilising the local underworld in Ho Chi Min City. 

It has to be said that there is something a little uncomfortable in the quasi-nationalist posturing of the film’s central premise. Korea has effectively been exporting crime by allowing dangerous criminals to flee abroad where the law can’t touch them. Korean crooks then make trouble for Korean tourists even if not quite to the extent of Hae-sang, all of which ignores the effects on the local Vietnamese population in concentrating on Korean on Korean crime. At the end of the film it’s even suggested that Korean police officers might be dispatched to other areas of Asia to look after Korean tourists which shows a certain lack of respect for national sovereignties while more or less letting the same police officers off the hook for failing to catch criminals in Korea or address the issues which led to them entering lives of crime. A maverick cop, Seok-do does rather throw his weight around in a foreign country, caring little for protocol and threatening to spark a diplomatic incident every few seconds. 

Then again he is just particularly keen on shutting down Hae-sang and exposing him for his heinous acts, cleaning up a mess that has ended up spilling over abroad. Ironically enough, the bereaved father, Choi (Nam Moon-cheol), maybe a powerful CEO but he made his money loansharking and is pretty much a petty gangster himself so of course he wants personal vengeance once again uncomfortably hiring mercenaries from China. Meanwhile, Seok-do ends up enlisting the help of a formerly undocumented migrant when Choi ends up getting kidnapped himself by a cornered Hae-sang.

In any case, Seok-do more than holds his own against the bloodthirsty villains in a series of well choreographed action sequences culminating in a one-on-one showdown on a bus. Much of Ma’s appeal lies in his effortless ability to take down bad guys which he does a plenty, even dispatching one via escalator to his waiting teammates below. Even so, he knows not to take himself too seriously and is keen to cede screen time to the ensemble allowing a gentle camaraderie to appear among his squad members despite their separation while Seok-do and the Captain are in Vietnam trying to have a covert holiday and the rest of the team are left behind to do regular admin work in the office. Though it may present some rather uncomfortable ideas in a kind of Korean exceptionalism that implies a degree of superiority over and disregard towards other Asian nations, the film is nevertheless a charming retro action comedy and perfect showcase for the charismatic star as his no-nonsense policeman makes a point of slapping down bad guys and fighting international crime while generally living his best life hanging out with similarly justice-orientated buddies. 


The Roundup screens in Amsterdam on 27th October & 4th November as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Special Delivery (특송, Park Dae-min, 2022)

“Why is it so hard to live?” a little boy asks after finding himself on the run with a strange woman who seems to be the only person interested in helping him. Situating itself in an upside-down world of backstreet crime, Park Dae-min’s high octane thriller Special Delivery (특송, Teuksong) is in part about how hard it is to live amid constant moral compromise as the heroine finds herself torn between her better judgement and human feelings in trying to rescue her human cargo not only from the bad guys chasing him but from a duplicitous society. 

Technically speaking, Eun-ha (Park So-dam) is a delivery driver yet the services her firm provides are highly specialised promising to deliver anything anywhere by whatever means possible. In practice this often seems to mean transporting gangsters on the run from their hideouts to the nearest port before rival gangs can catch up with them as we see Eun-ha do with spectacular skill in the opening sequence. Other than the practice of frequently switching out license plates, what she’s doing in itself isn’t really illegal but is definitely crime adjacent and potentially dangerous. She is however well paid, arguing with her boss/mentor/father figure for a pay rate increase to an unprecedented 50/50 split in proceeds, though she lives a fairly modest life in a cosy apartment with her beloved cat Chubby whom she watches via security cam while waiting around for a fare. When her boss agrees to do a rush job for a Chinese gangster she tells him it’s a bad idea but ends up going along with it only to get drawn into the big news story of the day when a former pro-baseball player turned match fixing underworld figure blows the whistle and runs off with all the gang’s money. Eun-ha was supposed to drive him and his son Seo-won (Jung Hyeon-jun) to a port to leave the country but the bad guys who turn out to be corrupt police officers get there first and Eun-ha ends up with the kid and a bag full of money but no plan B. 

Drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes’ Gloria, the film develops into something of a buddy comedy as Eun-ha finds herself on the run with Seo-won having gone back for him after her boss suggested handing him off to an associate “who deals with children”. As we discover the child reminds her of her younger self being all alone with no other relatives or friends who could take care of him. Even when he reveals he might have a mother after all, it turns out to be a dead end because no one wants to get involved in this dangerously escalating underworld crisis. Yet the found family of the marginalised at the Busan junkyard where Eun-ha is based have more moral integrity than the world around them even if her boss’ solution for what to do about Seo-won isn’t ideal either. “Life is going alone” the corrupt police officer later sneers having repeatedly stated the necessity of staking one’s life to win such a big payout, but what Eun-ha is discovering is that it’s about going together trying to save the boy not only from the dangerously out of control corrupt police officers but from the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary society in which money is the only thing that matters. 

Overcoming both persistent sexism and societal discrimination Eun-ha proves herself a top operator in her field, Park choreographing a series of genuinely impressive car chases and visceral fight scenes as Eun-ha has to think her way through to take out the tougher, stronger bad guys while trying to protect Seo-won from danger on all sides. Her crime-adjacent existence tells her he’s not her responsibility but still she wants to complete her mission and deliver him somewhere safe much as she was rescued as a child by someone who might have felt much the same but chose to take her in anyway. With its neon lighting and retro score, Special Delivery harks back to an age of classic car chase thrillers with a stand-out performance from Parasite’s Park So-dam as a tough as nails getaway driver with nerves of steel fighting for humanity in an increasingly inhumane world. 


Special Delivery screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival. Now available in the UK on digital download courtesy of Blue Finch Films!

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)