By Lee Hyo-won
Things seem to have come full circle in Korean cinema. After years of comparing whose budget was bigger for epic blockbusters, pioneering new genres or testing shock factors, local filmmakers are seeking inspiration in good old fashioned humor.
The 1990s "Two Cops" franchise told tall tales of a veteran cop and newcomer bickering and bonding. While "The Apprehenders" brings back some fond memories, it does not, thank goodness, resort to the most obvious choice of simply replacing the now middle-aged Park with Lee Sun-kyun.
Instead first-time director Lim Chan-ik provides an enticing alternative to gangster comedies that both domestic and international audiences have grown tired of. Issues at hand are thoroughly local yet the culture-coded quirks easily translate, most notably the witty treatment of petty "frenemy" rivalries and geopolitics that rule everyday lives.
"The Apprehenders" expels the last bit of mystery and cool about the police - something even the Kang Cheol-jung ("Public Enemy") series managed to retain - by showing they are no different from ordinary office workers in a cutthroat capitalist society. The plot is to the point: Two cops from contending districts try to beat each other for bigger, badder arrests but are forced to cooperate for a challenging case.
Heading Mapo's Special Investigation Team is Hwang (Park), who, given his humble educational background, has built his reputation through sheer grit and determination. Over the years he has devised a clever, 007-worthy system of tracking down high-profile targets from neighboring districts and making sure they end up somewhere in his jurisdiction.
In order to counter the devious Mapo police, Seodaemun recruits the younger Jeong (Lee), a graduate of the elite police academy. When Jeong loses a couple of wanted criminals to Hwang right under his nose, he promises to get even.
The antagonism is real. "I will seize crooks like a ghost", Jeong snarls at Hwang, who teased the younger cop by pouring three drops of soju into a glass and rotating it clockwise, as one would in a ritual for the dead.
Ulterior motives further fuel the fire. Officers that crack the most number of cases are named The Apprehenders, and Jeong is in desperate need of the title's 30 million won cash gift to start a family with his pregnant girlfriend - the so-called "speed limit violation" as Koreans put it, to sealing a marriage. On the other hand, Hwang, the reigning The Apprehenders, needs to maintain the honor in order to be promoted.
When a cunning serial rapist rampages through both districts, however, the rivals must join forces. Their sharing a temporary office is of course the shakiest cohabitation since the "JSA - Joint Security Area".
The film's strength lies in adding layers to a simple yet solid premise. "The Chaser"-accustomed viewers will find the tamed physical farce and action sequences tasteful, while solving the whodunit bit remains intriguing to a playful, rather than painstakingly suspenseful, degree.
"The Apprehenders" manages to keep things light without undermining the severity of sexual violence and its consequences, and even taking a step further to suggest, rather than blatently criticize, how local authorities lack professional know-how in dealing with traumatized victims. This becomes convincing through the moral awakening of the characters, a process which films such as "Children..." have failed to portray naturally. Yet the more serious, dramatic moments do not weigh things down.
The supporting characters and cameos provide some of the film's crowning moments, particularly the performance of iconic oddball actor Im Won-hee.
In theaters May 4. Distributed by Lotte Entertainment. Rated 15 and over. Runs 115 minutes.
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