“This is real, birdbrain”. If you’re a famous actor, it might take a while to dawn on you that you’re in real trouble rather than the subject of an admittedly dark candid camera skit or variety show stunt. Real life and the movies begin to blur for top Korean actor Hwang Jung-min playing a fictionalised version of himself when he’s kidnapped by a gang of ruthless petty criminals in Pil Gam-seong’s meta take on Chinese thriller Saving Mr Wu, Hostage: Missing Celebrity (인질, Injil).
Indeed the film opens with a montage of Hwang’s career to date including a degree of self-deprecation in which he describes himself as “just a petty actor” reminding the journalist interviewing him that film is a collaborative medium of which he is only a part. This version of himself that we see is modest and wholesome, going home early after an afterparty while his wife and son are away planning to relax alone. He seems to live a very lowkey life living in a fairly ordinary suburban house without domestic help or other signs of obvious wealth aside perhaps from an expensive car. Hwang is also on fairly friendly terms with the clerk at the local convenience store which he evidently visits frequently just like any other ordinary person rather than sending an underling to fetch him things or walking around with a massive entourage to remind people that he’s a movie star. Even while trying to escape his kidnappers he takes his shoes off before entering an old man’s home to use his landline telephone.
Yet one can’t escape the fact that he is fantastically rich and perhaps out of touch with “real” life, his kidnappers targeting him mainly on a whim born of chance coincidence but also in resentment for everything he represents. The leader of the gang, Choi Ki-wan (Kim Jae-beom), is a crazed psychopath whose primary motivations are most likely sadistic rather than purely financial even if his targets are those with fancy cars but those of his underlings are perhaps more prosaic. When one of the gang members is captured, it emerges that he had massive debts to a casino loanshark while the most sympathetic of the kidnappers appears to have learning difficulties and later explains that he’s only doing this to pay for medical treatment to remove a prominent facial birthmark and scarring so he could live a more normal life. Because of his naivety he remains strangely loyal to Ki-wan believing that he’s looking after him while refusing any responsibility for his crimes. The gang’s only female member (Lee Ho-jung), by contrast, seems to be a North Korean refugee in a romantic relationship with Ki-wan’s less psychotic but no less cruel partner Dong-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) who just wants the money.
Having literally played through scenarios just like these in his films, Hwang Jung-min the actor has perhaps gained a degree of experience that allows him to process his situation with a surprising degree of rationality quickly realising that as the kidnappers have made no attempt to hide their identities they most likely plan to kill him, and a young woman, So-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), abducted alongside a wealthy cafe owner they killed when he couldn’t come up with the cash fast enough, after they’ve got the ransom payments. It isn’t that Hwang’s stingy, it’s that he knows there’s no point giving them the money but his only chance for survival lies in making them think he might. Even so, he gets to literally play the hero engaging in a battle of wits with the kidnappers before attempting to make a dashing escape while the on the outside the a dogged policewoman and her partner do their best to track them down despite the unhelpful interventions of their more conservative boss.
Ki-wan might well have a point in admitting he’s overreached by going for such a high profile target. The police probably wouldn’t be investigating so heavily if the victim weren’t a famous movie star whose face is splashed across the papers. After all, they hadn’t done much for So-yeon whose sister had had to go to social media to raise awareness about her kidnapping fearing the police weren’t doing enough to help. Bearing out the underlying economic anxiety, So-yeon had only got the cafe job a few days previously after 37 failed interviews. Hwang’s response that he failed a hundred auditions before getting a break, people laughing at his acting dreams because he was a guy with curly hair and red skin who spoke with a strong southern accent, is intended to be reassuring in implying that even if it takes time you get there in the end but is also a little insensitive in the circumstances in downplaying So-yeon’s struggles in the contemporary economy having gone from elation in finally finding employment to being locked in a shed by a gang of psychos because of her boss’ personal greed which seems like quite the metaphor for the inequalities of the modern society. In any case, Pil crafts an intense kidnap thriller given an additional layer of absurdity in its meta dimensions but ends on a note of poignancy which suggests that Hwang himself is also and perhaps always will be hostage to his own image.
Hostage: Missing Celebrity screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)