By Lee Hyo-won
This year has so far marked the return of many screen heroes, such as Indiana Jones and Rambo - and the antihero Kang Cheol-jung. In "Public Enemy Returns"
, Sol Kyung-gu
("Public Enemy", 2002; "Another Public Enemy" - "Public Enemy 2
" 2005) brazenly exhibits his sixth sense for acting as the diehard detective. Cheol-jung does not let his boss - or the audience - down in this funny, street-smart sequel, which also raises some critical social issues.
With disheveled hair, an unwashed windbreaker and a scar here and there, Cheol-jung is always diving headfirst into crime scenes. After 15 years of close calls with death, he's seen and done it all. The most notorious criminals sheepishly surrender to this thug of a man, who recklessly beats men twice his size, referees duels between schoolboys and openly accepts small bribes.
And of course, when a situation calls for good cop, bad cop tactics, we can guess the role Cheol-jung takes. But it's hard not to develop an affinity for this flawed man, who's seen getting seriously offended by a third grader's joke and submitting to his little daughter.
In "Wide Awake"
, Cheol-jung is the same disheartened man. He decides to quit once and for all when he is unable to get a proper bank loan for his house. His boss, detective Um (Kang Shin-il
), files away the resignation form with a dozen more such "whines" from Cheol-jung. But he's serious this time.
However, a high school murder case draws Cheol-jung back into the task force - or more precisely, the promise of a retirement grant does. A 17-year-old boy, the head of a gang of troublemakers, is found dead in his classroom. What appears to have been a skirmish among juvenile delinquents, however, takes an unexpected twist when the dead boy's fingerprints match those found in an unsolved homicide.
While investigating the dead boy's friends, Cheol-jung senses that their new boss, Geoseong Group CEO Lee Won-sul (Jung Jae-young
), may be involved. Cheol-jung learns that the convict-turned-businessman brainwashes schoolboys and molds them into little devilish tools of murder. Their underage status prevents their fingerprints in crime scenes from being detected, and when they do get caught, their zeal for Geoseong keeps them quiet.
But Cheol-jung does not back down, and is determined to annihilate the public enemy. Continuing the tradition of the "Public Enemy" franchise, "Returns" eschews the cat-and-mouse game typical to the detective genre, and the battle between Cheol-jung and Won-sul is more like one between two dogs.
The film is well crafted, with complex layers of narrative unfolding in an organic form, interjected with just the right amount of comic relief. Compared to its rather grave prequels, "Returns" is much more determined to make you laugh, particularly by downright making fun of the police.
Yet some might find this movie more disturbing than previous ones as it involves teenage crime. Angst-ridden troublemakers, Cheol-jung says, will become either thugs or cops. Cheol-jung does manage to dissuade a few kids from becoming felons. But what will happen to them for sure, nobody knows. It is a bittersweet reminder of the soaring number of underage offenses in Korea.
The beauty of the movie lies in the unforgettable glances, grimaces and gestures of the actors. The magical casting does not end with Seol and Jung, but includes other eccentrically talented actors such as Lee Moon-shik
, Kang Shin-il
, and Yoo Hae-jin
, and charismatic veteran Moon Sung-geun
also makes a brief appearance. Fresh young actors also dazzle the silver screen with their uninhibited acting.
Great expectations for the film are reflected by the crowded press screening and overbooked public previews, where at one Seoul theater, people were willing to sit on the aisle steps to catch the flick before its box office release. High anticipation is of course displayed by the palpable PPL (product placement) - advertisements ranging from drinks and restaurants to cell phones.
"Returns" currently tops the online reservation ranking - the first Korean movie in 11 weeks to do so since "The Guard Post
" ("GP506"), according to major portal site Maxmovie and the Korean Film Council. Big Hollywood movies trail behind, including Dreamworks animation "Kung Fu Panda" and "The Incredible Hulk". This may be an auspicious sign for the struggling Korean film industry, which marked a record low in May.
Now showing in theaters. 15 and over. 125 minutes. No English subtitles. CJ Entertainment.