I’m the first to admit that I don’t have a firm grasp on all of the geopolitical history involving North and South Korea. In fact – outside of what little bit that got covered several decades back in high school history class – most of what I do know I’ve learned from the movies from South Korea. Granted, that recounting might end up being a bit more one-sided than Kim Jong-un would have you believe, but – if the American media has taught me anything – the current dictator seems far too obsessed with Dennis Rodman than he need be.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely 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 …)
After his father is killed on a spy mission gone bad to the south, North Korean teenager Myung-hoon (played with suitable simmering restraint by Choi Seung-hyun) has no choice but to assume responsibility for his sister Hye-in (Han Ye-ri) and fill in his late dad’s shoes, submitting to be trained as a government assassin. After his two-year indoctrination, he infiltrates South Korea as a defected teenager, where he meets a classmate also named Hye-in (Kim Yoo-jeong) who he befriends from school bullies. When a change in political influences back home requires selling out all field operatives beyond the border, Myung-hoon suddenly finds himself fighting for his life against killers and the police bent on bringing him down. In the end, he’ll risk it all to finally get his sister free from the clutches of those who destroyed his family.
While it’s carefully packaged as a contemporary action film / political thriller, COMMITMENT is more aptly described as a hard-boiled drama. (I’ve read and watched more than the average viewer, so I’d like to think I can spot one when I see it.) It dabbles in noir sensibilities, but most of its characters are too squeaky clean to truly be attributed with that genre. Rather, this one is mostly about some mildly over-the-top premises (characters and situations that likely couldn’t or wouldn’t exist in reality to the extent that they’re defined here) all funneling to serve the traditional ‘actioner’ conceits.
To that end, Choi Seung-hyun’s Myung is great. His is a somewhat troubled loner once he’s been fully trained and dispatched to do the North’s dirty work behind-enemy-lines (as it were). He’s blessed with a heart of gold (he only wants to protect his sister from the labor camps), and he’s given a surrogate to protect in her absence (Kim Yoo-jeong’s Hye-in) who ends up flirting with his affections. Once the regime changes back in the North and circumstances require Myung’s death, it’s kinda/sorta a convenient script convention that he’ll be required to save both young women and perhaps make the ultimate sacrifice of his ‘commitment’ in the process.
But, oh, what a glorious sacrifice, indeed!
Director Park Hong-soo wrings some solid tension from Myung’s predicament, and the screenplay by Kim Soo-Young spaces out the action pieces far enough from one another that the players actually have some space to do some small things with what might otherwise be fairly standard character development. Myung and Hye-in have a few moments to explore who they are respectively, and, while the film carefully never gives in to sentiments that these two will somehow find a few to be together, the picture certainly manages to pull at the viewer’s heartstrings by showing us Myung watching her while she’s sleeping, watching her while she’s dancing alone, and (dare I say?) protecting her from a blast of dynamite tearing about the politically-driven world around them.
No one’s ever destined to be together in hard-boiled fiction. In fact, that’s often the theme explored by the deluded, flawed lead. While Myung is allowed to hint at a possible future, I suspect he knew his days were numbered, and that’s what makes the end so tragic but still a bit predictable if (and only if) you know a thing or two about hard-boiled prose. That doesn’t keep the conclusion from being expected, and (thankfully) it doesn’t keep it from being any less exciting.
COMMITMENT (2013) is produced by The Lamp and Golden Fish Pictures. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment. 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, this is one sharply made film with the highest quality sight and sound available. Lastly – as is too often the case when these foreign films find release on American shores – there are no real special features to speak of: there’s a brief (10 minute) ‘making of’ short along with the theatrical trailer.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I think some of the politics were a bit muddled unnecessarily in the English-dubbed translation of COMMITMENT, and I found the backstory involving feuding terrorism cells to have been a touch more confusing than it needed to be. Also, a few early scenes were a tad too melodramatic. But everything else – and I do mean everything else – about the film is pretty spectacular in my book. Once the set-up is established and the audience knows what’s at stake, COMMITMENT is dynamite entertainment, topped off by brilliant performances from relative newcomers Choi Seung-hyun and Kim Yoo-jeong.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well GO USA Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD copy of COMMITMENT by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.