'Spare' offers plenty more than fist-fights

The domestic box office has yet again succumbed to the influence of Hollywood and its penchant for world-saving heroes embellished with CGI and special effects.

That makes it all the more refreshing to see Lee Seong-han's debut film "Spare", which provides not only an alternative but a bold antithesis to the typical American blockbuster.

"Spare" boasts what it calls "100-percent real action" free of stuntmen, CGI and wires. So, those walking into the cinema expecting high-flying kicks and gritty fistfights will be surprised to find that the film actually relies little on action to enthrall the audience.

With the use of self-reflexive post-production effects, discontinuity editing and an endearing aloofness, "Spare" resembles a Korean incarnation of Guy Ritchie's "Snatch". complete with its McGuffin in the form of a liver donor.

The story begins when a yakuza boss survives an assassination attempt but remains in critical condition. Given his rare blood-type, only a Korean street thug named Gwang-tae (Lim Joon-il) is the fitting liver donor.

Yakuza agent Sato (Mitsuki Koga) is sent to Korea to safely escort the debt-ridden Gwang-tae to Japan, but the two run into trouble when the large sum of money he receives for his liver donation is stolen by his friend Gil-do (Jung Woo).

With loan shark Myung-soo (Kim Soo-hyun-IX) on the hunt for Gwang-tae, Sato faces various obstacles in accomplishing his mission.

The action sequences throughout are largely unimpressive; although the different fighting styles are interesting, the DIY fight scenes come off as tedious and amateurish rather than fresh and realistic. This is where the ingenious use of music comes in. The music director Kim Seul-gi's score consists solely of samulnori (traditional Korean folk music) and it helps to give the uneven film fluidity and pace.

Traditional percussion instruments such as the kkwaenggwari (small gong), jing (large gong), janggu (hourglass drum), and buk (drum) combine to provide a pulsating, organic rhythm and imbue the scenes with tension. It gives the sense that the characters are having a fun day out chasing and fighting each other

The organic folk music is further complemented by the unconventional use of voice-over narration whereby two men bicker with one another "off-screen" as if they are a part of the audience. This background narration is another element inspired by traditional folk festivities where two off-stage narrators would argue with each another in the background as a part of the show.

For example, at one point, a character looks into the screen and one of the voices asks "He can't see us, can he?" only to find that he is looking into a mirror. This self-reflexivity can easily hinder the experience, but it is deployed effectively to enforce the aloofness of the film.

This levity is maintained throughout the film in the dialogue and acting, as the characters are all endearingly constructed and playfully played. Kim Soo-hyun-IX's loan shark Myung-soo is hilarious, poking fun at the head honcho gangster stereotype, complete with a sideshow of incompetent henchmen.

Jung Woo does a great job portraying Gil-do as a lovable, cheeky villain despite his character being so morally challenged. There is a great chemistry between him and the protagonist Gwang-tae as friends at war that is central to the film.

Mostly, Lee Seong-han does a commendable job putting it all together, not letting one element overwhelm another. At times, "Spare" does feel weighed down by the overuse of effects with wipes, split screens, captions and thought-bubbles running riot.

Often, they effectively encapsulate the pulpy, comic-book feel the film strives for, but at other times, end up feeling like an episode for a gimmicky TV-show. Also, the lack of depth may put off some viewers, as there is very little room for emotional involvement - the characters are all just too busy running around trying to find or escape from one another.

All in all, though, Lee Seong-han's debut is a success. The film's strengths and artistic gambles pay off to overcome its shortcomings. Under the guise of an action film, "Spare" is a charming little gem that manages to be original without being too experimental, and fun without being too cheesy. Most importantly, it sets out to have a great time and just like a good samulnori, the audience is all too welcome to come along and get involved.

By Han Sung-joo