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[MOVIE REVIEW] Erotic crime thriller falls flaccid

2008/01/10 Source

There is nothing special about the genre of "Open City", opening nationwide today. It is easily categorized as a crime thriller. But the subject of pickpockets operating in broad daylight is fairly unusual, perhaps the first ever Korean flick devoted entirely to the street-smart thieves.

Doubly unusual -- or strange -- is director Lee Sang-gi's attempt to incorporate a femme fatale theme into the film in a bid to turn it into an erotic crime thriller. There's no question about the beauty of Son Ye-jin ("April Snow", "The Classic") but it is an open question whether she is really up to the task of a tantalizing seductress.

Son plays Baek Jang-mi, which means "white rose" in Korean. If the name is too tacky, so be it. After all, her role is tackier -- a female boss of a small pickpocket ring keen to expand its territory in Seoul.

Baek Jang-mi draws some attention from authorities in both Korea and Japan by staging a series of high-stakes pickpocket forays in Osaka. Once she returns to Seoul, local police duly begin to track her every move, though her official job is a tattooist clad in a revealing dress.

Another dangerous woman named Kang Man-ok (Kim Hae-sook) comes into play. Kang used to be a veteran pickpocket, and the list of her crimes and convictions is quite long. As soon as Kang serves her time in prison, she encounters her former ring member, Baek Jang-mi, who hides her thorns inside.

Baek has set up a new pickpocket team and she wants Kang to lend her legendary hands so that they can hit it big, while conquering the lucrative market areas such as Myeongdong and Dongdaemun.

But the old "stealthy" hand expresses her will to stay clean by chewing none other than the sharp blade, a key tool used for stealing money from unsuspecting merchants and ordinary people.

What Kang does not foresee in her right decision to avoid the crime scene is her crisscrossed past, which has compromised her future. At the end of the lethal human spectrum stands Cho Dae-young (Kim Myung-min), a talented detective who has a traumatic experience about his mother.

The movie breaks some fresh ground or cuts out numerous pockets by offering a close glimpse of how the experienced pickpockets approach and distract their "marks" and steal the targeted money. The tricks are rather simple. The members always work a tightly controlled procedure: first, they scour the street to select a victim; second, one member approaches the target and creates some distractions on the spot; and, finally, "the machine" with the sharp-edged blade makes a cut in the handbag or a coat, passing the money to another member.

While the routine is realistically portrayed, some of the details involving the pickpocket thieves are also cautionary. For instance, if you realize your money is gone, do not attempt to chase the obvious pickpocket, because it can lead to a life-threatening situation. In the dirty and dark world of street thieves, there is a vicious technique called "branch-cutting", referring to the thief's relentless move to block the victim's chase, often by attacking with knives or blades.

Except for the realism of the shady acts, "Open City" leaves too many cinematic aspects open to criticism. The most glaring problem is Son's mismatched femme fatale role. Son's heavy makeup, cleavage-showing dress and other accoutrements combined evoke the famous seductress Kim Hye-soo in "Tazza: The High Rollers" ("Tazza: The High Rollers"), but stops short of mimicking Kim's superficial features only. Son changes her dress frequently, often to the colorful yet gaudy -- something that a secretive pickpocket boss never puts on for fear of attracting attention on the street.

The plot that connects detective Cho's not-so-happy childhood with the veteran pickpocket "machine" Kang seems at once half-baked and overdone.

Though there are some audacious pickpocket-eat-pickpocket moments, the movie's frequent use of extreme violence and an extremely flat lead performance do little to salvage the fatal flaw -- an erotic crime thriller that is neither too erotic nor very thrilling.

By Yang Sung-jin

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