In the past two decades, there have been some truly great pictures to come out of South Korea that have explored dramatically the political situation between the North and the South. In many of these cases, the stories have been more period pieces told with the backdrop of war; still in others, the movies have been cinematic observations on existing hostilities between the divided nation, and terrorism has emerged front and center. It’s a cultural reality that few of us (as Americans) can truly understand much less appreciate … but perhaps something like THE SUSPECT is what we need to make sense of it all.
Clearly, THE SUSPECT is more popcorn flick than it is biting social commentary. But it’s a popcorn flick done exceedingly well … and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the production packaging: “Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) is the best field agent in North Korea – until he is abandoned during a mission, his wife and daughter missing. Hunted and on the run, torn between grief and vengeance, he takes a job as a night driver for the CEO of a powerful corporation. The chairman is brutally assassinated – but gives Dong-chul a pair of glasses before he dies. Now, he’s on the run again. Accused of murder, wanted for treason, and desperate to uncover the volatile national secrets hidden inside the glasses. Dong-chul wants the truth. And he’ll start a war to get it.”
This may sound a bit crass, but one of the political realities of the last century that the American motion picture complex benefitted from tremendously was the Cold War. The constant simmering tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union provided a terrific political template for which storytellers could wrap their teeth around in order to produce compelling and dramatic motion pictures. Why? Well, it was pretty clear that there were two opposing forces – some folks simplify this by calling them ‘good vs. bad’ but I won’t here – and, when you have two opposing forces, practically everything that happens theatrically is necessarily going to heighten the conflict. Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different: conflict is required for great drama.
Thus, THE SUSPECT benefits from capitalizing on the tensions between North and South Korea by taking one man – Dong-chul – and essentially putting him smack dab in the middle of it: once the North abandoned him, he defected to the South … and, now that the South has set their sights on perhaps making him the bad guy, the spy-turned-driver has nowhere left to turn. All he can rely on is himself and perhaps the man who is his mortal enemy (a spy hunter for South Korea), a fellow who might end up being the last friend he has in the free world.
The story bobs and weaves almost as frenetically as the action does in this fast-paced actioner. Although Dong-chul has an axe to grind with his former homeland, all he really seeks to do privately is achieve a measure of personal vengeance; his quest, however, gets interrupted when he’s morally taxed with doing ‘the right thing’ to serve both nation’s interests, though he’ll be painted a criminal by North and South in the process. This puts him on-the-run constantly, never knowing when or if he’ll find an ally much less a safe place to lay his head.
THE SUSPECT at times suffers from action overkill. A few fight sequences are shot a bit too quick and tight (an uncomfortable trend for silver screen directors) so much so that it’s occasionally hard to discern who exactly is kicking the stuffing out of who. But that doesn’t lessen the fact that the movie has some of the best practical stunt work I’ve seen in quite some time; the car chases are particularly exciting, and it’s all given the kind of attention to detail most directors would die for. Albeit some folks might be put off by the film’s pace early on (it takes its time in establishing the various particulars and players, and this contributes to its 137 minute run-time), those who survive will likely be pleased by one of the purest actioners I’ve seen in some time.
THE SUSPECT (2013) is produced by Green Fish Pictures, Musa Productions, and Showbox/Mediaplex. DVD distribution is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment, one of the best catalogues around. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Korean-spoken-language release with English subtitles available; there is no English-dubbed track. As for the technical specifications? Wow! Director Shin-yeon Won rarely lets up on the quality sights and sounds once they’re layered on, and the movie works a breakneck speed when it needs to. Lastly, if you’re looking for special feature, then let me prepare you for the disappointment: there aren’t any. A huge miss … but it is what it is.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. A slow beginning gives way to a brilliant realized action picture, one that clever balances the cultural and political realities of a modern day South Korea while underscoring that progress takes time. Once the characters are clear and you’re buckled up, THE SUSPECT roars at high speed through some of the best practical stunt work to hit the silver screen in quite some time. The ending layered on the happy-go-lucky charm a bit too thick, but everything else was more than pitch perfect.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of THE SUSPECT by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.