[Guest Film Review] "Master"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
If one thing could be said for "Master", it is that it is timely. Dealing with the concept of pyramid frauds, the corruption of the multinational companies, and their ties to politicians in a time when Korea is facing a scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye was a definite recipe for success. Furthermore, the presence of Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin at the helm insured the film's financial success even more, with "Master" taking the 32nd place on the list of highest-grossing films in South Korea of all time, as of February.
Jin Hyun-pil is the Chairman of One Network, the kind of fund that has thousands of followers, bringing some extreme innovations in the financial world, such as paying dividends each day. Led by its charismatic leader and his two main associates, Park Jang-goon who deals with the tech, and Kim Mi-yong, also known as Mother Kim as head of PR, Chairman Jin has managed to accumulate power by bribing officials (Mother Kim's part) and money through electronic frauds (Park's part).
However, Kim Jae-myeong, the head of an elite investigative team is on his trail, and when he and his number two, Sin Gemma, find leverage with Kim, Chairman Jin's "accomplishments" are put in danger, while Park becomes excruciatingly unsure about where his loyalties lie.
After the initial events, the film's setting changes, and a bunch of ruined or on the brink of characters repeat their battle in Manila as the allegiances start changing once more.
Cho Ui-seok directs and pens (along Kim Hyeon-deok) a very entertaining film that incorporates, apart from the aforementioned elements, a plethora of elements of mainstream cinema. In that fashion, the basis of the movie may be an agonizing thriller with many plot twists, but there are also car chases, gunfights, a martial arts scene, drama (although brief and not at all melodramatic) and very beautiful protagonists (both men and women) in different styles of appearance. The fast pace, implemented expertly by Shin Min-kyung's editing -- particularly in the action scenes -- and the impressive cinematography by Yok Yoo also stress this trait, as the latter wraps the film in an impressive visual package that makes the production even easier on the eye. The elaborateness in the technical department extends to Park Elhen's production design, which presents interiors filled with luxury or rundown buildings with the same artistry, and Cho Sang-kyung's costumes, which have the protagonists looking as good as possible.
Some excessiveness in the script does appear, particularly in the second part where Cho Ui-seok seems to have gone a bit overboard with the concept of the characters and the story, but even that hyperbole fits the general commercial aesthetics of the film, much like with Hollywood action blockbusters.
Despite being the "smaller" name of the three main characters, Kim Woo-bin as Park Jang-goon is the main protagonist of the movie. His performance is quite good as a man caught amongst powers bigger than he is, particularly when he realizes that he is better off as a subordinate rather than the main man. Gang Don-won as Kim Jae-myeong is as cool as ever in the role of the determined hero, that seems to suit him to the fullest. However, I felt that his part, as a kind of father figure to Park, is a bit hyperbolic, particularly since the former is 28 and the latter 36.
Lee Byung-hun as Chairman Jin is the one who steals the show as the archetype of the "noble villain" who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals of money and power. His character is the one presenting Jo's main comments about the extreme immorality of large corporations and their connection to the political system. I found the highlight of his performance the scene where he tries to reconcile Park with Mother Kim, in a sequence where he manages to talk and act softly, all the while emitting a permeating sense of danger.
Uhm Ji-won as Sin Gemma and Jin Kyung as Mother Kim play similar roles, as their characters are sexy and tough at the same time, while the omnipresent Oh Dal-soo has, once again, a sort of comic relief role. All of them are quite good in their parts.
"Master" is an impressive film that will satisfy all fans of action thrillers, and a clear indication of the path commercial Korean cinema is taking at the moment, which is quite similar to the one of Hollywood blockbusters, with the addition of the theme of higher-up corruption.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.