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Believer (2018/I)
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by Jay Seaver

"A rather lesser Drug War."
3 stars

A fair number of people, this guy included, spent a fair amount of time and words a few years back talking about how Johnnie To's "Drug War" was different from (and, arguably, less than) his Hong Kong crime movies because of the involvement of the Chinese censor board; watching "Believer", the new South Korean remake, suggests that maybe it deserved a little more credit for being a heck of a crime movie. This new version has a lot of the same beats and handles some well enough, but Lee Hae-yeong is no match for To.

The story opens with an obsessed cop, Jo Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong), recruiting Cha Soo-jung (Keum Sae-rok), a teenage junkie who has helped him before, to help chase down a lead on the mysterious drug lord known only as "Mister Lee". What she finds doesn't seem to match with anything, but they are soon gifted something much more solid: Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryung) arrives late for a meeting of Lee's lieutenants and thus escapes one of his regular purges-by-bomb. Also surviving is Seo Yeong-rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), who lived in that greenhouse turned meth lab, and he presents another opportunity, as he was not expected to be there and thus it would not be unusual for the frequent go-between to keep his appointment to escort Park Sun-chang (Park Hae-joon) to a meeting with Chinese supplier Jin Ha-rim (Kim Joo-hyuk) - and by having "Rak" tell Park that the meeting was delayed, Won-ho can impersonate both parties in turn.

As with the original, that sequence is the centerpiece of this movie, and it's arguably the reason you officially remake Drug War rather than just use the generic bones of it to create something similar: Lots of gang movies feature a cop trying to infiltrate the mob this way, but the immediate turnaround where the filmmakers present the same scene a second time, just with the roles recast, is an audacious move, a test of both Lee Hae-yeong's skill as a director and Cho Jin-woong's as an actor. As the cops execute the mechanics of a heist movie in the background, Lee finds ways to make the seemingly easier second time through more tense than the first, while Cho does impressive work showing us the driven cop trying to portray two different monsters. Explicitly showing your cast acting is a dangerous game; expecting them to do show that fake persona on top of the "real" thing twice in a row without stumbling is pushing it.

It also highlights how the actors playing detectives in these movies must sometimes be having the least fun. Cho gets to play the hyper-focused cop even when Won-ho is not undercover, and while he does focus and leadership well, he's only got a few scenes as Won-ho himself that jump out as more than a stock character, and his team comes across as fairly anonymous as well. Ryu Jun-yeol has a solid, palpable bitterness as Rak, enough to play as more than he seems without ever going out of character. It's the rogues' gallery of crooks around them give the film life, though - the competing crime bosses with the obscene appetites, Kim Sung-ryung playing delightfully arrogant even as she flips after the attempt on her life, the deaf-mute chemists, and even the self-aware but still lost addict.

They're all what they appear to be, and as such mainly decoration for a movie about putting on and taking off masks. It makes for some rather unsatisfying action, as it turns out, as the film's fights and shootouts are more often deployed to obscure a development than to resolve one. It's fitting for the film's themes that To's big shootout in the open is replaced with a fight involving masked assailants in a smoke-filled room, but it's only fitfully exciting to watch and not really satisfying. The final scenes of both movies make for an interesting contrast in how opposing artistic demands can both come up with something kind of hackneyed. The bits that are new to this version - most notably, Cha Seung-won's character who conflates corporate, criminal, and spiritual leadership - never get the time they need to truly grab an audience.

"Believer" takes enough directly from "Drug War" while consciously changing other details that it would be difficult to separate them in the best circumstances, and someone who saw them in the opposite order might prefer Lee's take to To's efficient genre exercise, especially if the themes particular to South Korea resonate better than ones about China and Hong Kong. For sheer entertainment, it's hard to beat the original, and that's certainly the one I'll watch in the future.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32221&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/09/18 18:43:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  08-Jun-2018 (NR)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  08-Jun-2018 (MA)


Directed by
  Hae-young Lee

Written by
  Hae-young Lee

Cast
  Jin-Woong Jo
  Jun-yeol Ryu
  Seung-won Cha
  Ju-hyuk Kim
  Sung-ryung Kim
  Hae-Joon Park



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