11:00 - 31st January 2015, by Calum Waddell

The Suspect

Described on its UK DVD cover as ‘the Asian answer to the Bourne films’, The Suspect was a seasonal smash hit in its native South Korea last December (released on Christmas Eve no less, following a huge marketing push across the country). The movie itself, directed by Won Shin-yeon (A Bloody Aria), is pretty much in line with what you might expect from a new Korean thriller – albeit with more heavy duty slam-bang action and a little too much exposition. Plot-wise, though, we’re back in espionage territory ala such recent notables as Secret Reunion (2010) and the surprisingly flaccid The Berlin File (2013). Here, a young, tough, no-nonsense North Korean defector (and former spy) called Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo from She’s on Duty) is double-crossed and targeted for assassination. His South Korean boss, an elderly, powerful CEO, is murdered in front of him – and Dong-cheol is framed for the murder. However, before his employer passes away he hands him a pair of glasses and asks him to keep them safe. Within these lenses, it seems, is a secret that will reveal all…

From here The Suspect becomes a game of cat and mouse. Dong-cheol finds himself on the run, cornered by both the underground and the police, and clinging – at times by the skin of his teeth – to his life. Of course, he also has to prove his innocence and work out exactly why he has been labelled as the prime motivator of an extravagant homicide involving a South Korean millionaire.

So let’s start with the good – The Suspect provides some pulse-pounding excitement and easily outdoes the thematically not dissimilar Bond romp Skyfall in terms of Machiavellian villainy, comic book set pieces and near-miss explosions. However, it is Jason Bourne that The Suspect is aiming to go toe-to-toe with and, sadly, it never quite matches these movies – now recognised as trendsetters in the field of contemporary action cinema – in terms of harnessing all of its loose ends into a tight knit, comprehensible story. Neither, it has to be said, does The Suspect offer the international intrigue of either Bond or Bourne. Aside from a brief travelogue to Hong Kong, the theatrics remain grounded in Seoul. It is unfortunate, because the narrative (if perhaps not the budget) permits for a plot that could stretch across other areas of Asia.

As such, it is the awe-inspiring stunts and CGI-boosted visual wizardry that is the star of the show here. Fans of blockbuster popcorn entertainment will, surely, not be disappointed. Gong Yoo, a familiar face from a number of comedies and dramas – is a solid leading man for this genre and clearly not afraid to get down and dirty. There is a subtle romance here too, which works quite well, between the ex-North Korean agent and a female documentary filmmaker (Yoo Da-in) who is aiming to make an expose on traitors to the Pyongyang regime. This factor could have fallen flat on its face, but – as with The Suspect’s more famous American cousins – adding a little oestrogen into the mix actually compliments the heaving masculinity, car crashes and bullet ballets.

Also of praise is a not-too-heavy handed approach to Seoul’s number one enemy. As well as the slightly slapdash, but likeable, Secretly Greatly (2013), there have been a few films from Korea that use the North / South divide as a basis for thrills and spills. If The Berlin File had a slightly fascist attitude towards the crazy Kim regime, then The Suspect at least attempts to add some human intrigue to the very real political battle between the two states. As an outsider looking in, some of these films mediate different views on the strife that everyday South Koreans have to deal with (from military service to threats of nuclear war) – and it is hard to deny that this makes for fascinating politics. The Suspect might, ultimately, only go so far as to pay lip service to the idea of ‘peace’ – but with the Cold War now over in the west, these Korean movies are about as close as we will ever get to re-imagining such old Bond classics as From Russia With Love (1963) in the year 2014.

Finally, The Suspect also wins points with some of the most stunning cinematography NEO has seen in quite some time (the man calling the shots, Lee Sung-je also photographed local hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea). Alas, this is hampered somewhat by the decision to edit the many moments of highway carnage and martial arts mayhem with a music video vigour. Note to South Korean genre-makers: we like your cinema because it is different from what Hollywood is offering up, not because it strives to be the same thing.

With this said, The Suspect is a fun ride. It might be a little bit too convoluted and aesthetically ambitious for its own good, but there is a lot of enjoyment to be had with a pulpy pot-boiler like this. As long as you can overlook the fact that everything here is overcooked, this is one Korean caper that is well worth your time.

Silly but exciting, we suspect that this latest slice of Seoul-cool will find a firm fan following…
SCORE: 3.5/5
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