Korean Romantic Comedy
South Korea has always been obsessed with family themes, most of their movie releases have strong themes of family tattooed on them. Written and directed by Lee Sang-Gi, "OPEN CITY" (2008) is an action film with ambition; it blends film noir, familial issues, and an interesting concept about the world of pickpockets as well as the policemen who pursue them. Lee Sang-Gi enlisted the aid of a Korean police inspector and introduced the cast to a real-life pickpocket to make the scenes look authentic.
Baek Jang-mi (Son Ye-Jin, Moment to Remember) is a fiercely attractive, sexy pickpocket. While operating in Japan, she is caught with her hand in the cookie jar with her deadly knife-wielding bodyguard Choi Seong-Su (Shim Ji-Ho) and is forced to return home to her home country of Korea to avoid being arrested. Utilizing the skills she learned in Japan, Jang-Mi opens a tattoo parlor, using it as a front to hide her goals to expand Korea's pickpocket industry. She establishes a new gang that she calls the "Samsung Gang" and enlists the services of some of the business' best workers. She also tries to enlist the aid of her dead mother's old friend, a legendary pickpocket named Kang Man-Ok (Kim Hae-Sook) into the fold. Jang-Mi launches the center of her activities in Dongdaemun.
Cho Dae-Yung (Kim Myung-min) is a police inspector who has the natural talent for catching bad guys and hold an impressive record in dealing with heinous crimes. He is ordered to lead a task force to crack down on pickpockets. Dae-Yung is reluctant to take on this assignment, as his own mother had been convicted of pick pocketing spanning 17 arrests. Despite his reservations, he is convinced by his colleague, Lt. Oh, to join the task force as he tries to undo the embarrassment that his mother had done. Dae-Yung's passion for police work and Jang-Mi's will is set on a collision course.
It was quite impressive the way director Lee had approached the film's screenplay. In 2004, Lee worked long hours discussing with Korean chief Oh Yeon-Su, an expert in pickpocket crime. The two discussed Korean subculture as well as the lives of policemen. Lee also went along with the WAIS (the Korean equivalent to the FBI) to observe how they stage operations and to catch pickpockets. The cast of "Open City" were also introduced to a real-life pickpocket so that they can educate themselves with the real techniques in this profession. The workings of a razor blade, the distractions pitched in, and the getaways that makes a pickpocket success are fully brought into exposition. These are not ordinary pickpockets, but those who go after big game, they hit the ones who carry the most money. The pick pocketing scenes look authentic, and after all the hard work, (Son Ye-jin even suffered an accident during rehearsals) the cast looks very convincing in their roles. Even the police operations to crack down the shady professionals look credible in the manner in which they were filmed.
The film's aces would have to come from the pick pocketing scenes as well as the raw seductive appeal of Korean actress Son Ye-jin. The actress has definitely matured since her roles in "The Classic" and "Lover's Concerto". This was promoted as the film that would take her career to another direction. Her cutesy-cute image is shed to that of a femme fatale. Son Ye-jin exudes raw sexual appeal as she struts around in skimpy outfits when she isn't on the field, director Lee injects her character with a lot of different shades of gray. The erotic part of the film comes in the form of the tattoo parlor, as she seduces, manipulates the men around her into submitting to her whim. Son Ye-jin is a beautiful actress and plays her character as a sympathetic criminal with a conscience; she succeeds, but most of the time Jang-Mi is only seducing Cho Dae-Yung which puts her femme fatale characterization into some doubt. Still, Son Ye-jin steals the show, as the viewer would be hard-pressed to take their eyes off her, while she maintains a menacing presence.
The screenplay is good for the most part, it plays on the mechanics and rules of the pick pocketing profession, as well as the politics and workings of police work. Jang-Mi's team is subject to the rules of a certain area when ‘owned' by another. Vengeance and payback also plays a part of the proceedings. Getting to where Jang-Mi is at, it is not surprise that she stepped on certain toes. The film also carries a subplot about family. The lead characters' links to one another does prove credible, but its familial themes did threaten to weigh down on what should be the film's central focus. The family drama does feel a bit overwrought at times, but director Lee manages to recover the script quickly enough, giving the film a taut feeling that has a familial backdrop. The central pickpocket concept does feel to become overcome with the development of Man-Ok and Dae-Yung's fractured relationship. I rather thought that this made our protagonists very human, and all the main characters had a chance to shine. In the end, the pick pocket plot may be overshadowed by its familial theme, but it does give our characters more depth and the script does stay grounded enough in establishing its legwork.
The film's pick pocket scenes do add excitement and the direction manages to expose the perils of being both the pickpocket and the one being pick pocketed on. Lee does manage to flesh out the consequences of this action on its victims, as well as the potential violence that may arise. The director also displays his skills as an action director as the film has a few encounters of fisticuffs. The knife fighting scenes are ingeniously choreographed and the fight scenes look quite realistic but hard-boiled. Brawls, fights, and deadly duels provide intense entertainment, although the quality of the fights in the later parts of the film doesn‘t match the quality of the earlier action scenes.
Ultimately, the film does manage to play on its aces well. It does have some missed opportunities especially on parts of this criminal underworld, I would have loved to see more of this rarely seen workings in the world of pickpockets. The family drama does threaten to drag some scenes but hey, this is a Korean film and the Korean people are fond of their melodrama. It does falter a little as a great piece of film noir, but ‘Open City" does a lot more things right than wrong. It does manage to avoid a perfunctory ending and it manages to instill emotion. It is also refreshing to see Son -Ye-jin stepping out of her ‘do-gooder' image and taking on more mature roles that show some skin. Her quick changes in costume also serve as one of the film's selling points; the actress does look very good. Director/writer Lee brings up the correct elements, and you can see that the film has extreme ambition.
Highly Recommended! [4- Stars Out of 5 Stars]
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