Director: Jo Eui-seok
Writer: Jo Eui-seok, Kim Hyun-duk
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won, Kim Woo-bin, Uhm Ji-won, Oh Dal-su, Jin Kyung, Monsour Del Rosario, Jung Won-jung, Yoo Yeon-soo, Jo Hyun-chul, Paek Hae-soo
Running Time: 143 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The Korean film industry rounded out 2016 with yet another thriller concerning those in positions of authority abusing their power. This time based on the true story of a CEO who defrauded his sales staff in order to line his own pockets, it’s a story that plugs directly into the sentiments that many Koreans are feeling towards those in authority during recent times. While some viewers are likely starting to feel fatigued at the recurring theme that’s been present throughout the year, these productions are arguably more entertaining than the overly patriotic epics like The Admiral: Roaring Currents and Northern Limit Line from a couple of years prior.
On the surface, Master bears a striking resemblance to a production which was released just a year earlier, in the form of Woo Min-ho’s Inside Men. Both focus on a trio of male characters and their allegiances with each other, and both feature Lee Byung-hun as one of the characters in question. Byung-hun has had a busy 2016, with roles both in Hollywood productions Misconduct and The Magnificent Seven, as well as on local soil with Master, and Kim Ji-woon’s return to Korean filmmaking in Age of Shadows. Here Byung-hun plays the CEO in question, the leader of a pyramid scheme company called One Network. Replacing Jo Seung-woo and Baek Yoon-sik as his co-stars are Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin.
Dong-won has had almost as busy a year as Byung-hun, with major roles in the horror movie The Priests and crime caper A Violent Prosecutor. For Master he purposefully beefed up for the role, with his broad shouldered appearance reflecting a marked difference from his usual slight frame. Playing a committed anti-corruption investigator, to draw a comparison to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Dong-won is the good to Byung-hun’s the bad. That leaves the ugly, which has Woo-bin playing a young IT expert who’s been helping Byung-hun to launder the money, while also planning to skim off the top. Woo-bin has made a steady transition from predominantly starring in TV dramas, to featuring more on the big screen. Cutting his teeth as the main character in Friend 2, which was followed up with a role in the breezy crime caper The Con Artists, Master is definitely his meatiest role to date.
At the helm is director Jo Eui-seok, also responsible for the script, who was last seen directing the Korean remake of the Hong Kong movie Eye in the Sky, with 2013’s Cold Eyes. What’s perhaps most interesting about Master is that, despite Byung-hun and Dong-won clocking in the most years of experience, it’s Woo-bin’s compromised IT expert that proves to be the most interesting focal point of the movie. His expertise in staying off the radar clearly not matching that of his IT skills, he’s pulled in by Dong-won’s investigator, and strikes a deal to help them take down Byung-hun in order to avoid jail time. Forced to be a mole within Byung-hun’s organization, his constantly shifting allegiances, and willingness to do anything to save his own skin, come together to make him the most conflicted character of the trio.
This is however, also most likely due to Byung-hun and Dong-won’s characters being somewhat underwritten. Byung-hun fares the best, his natural charisma able to make roles even in misfires like Memories of the Sword at least watchable. As the CEO he portrays the role almost like that of a cult leader, addressing his thousands of employees in flashy seminar halls and shedding fake tears of gratitude, he’s blindly followed based largely on the cult of personality which he’s built around himself. Dong-won’s unwavering investigator is the dullest of the trio, given little personality beyond his desire to take down Byung-hun, and despite being dedicated to the role, the fact he has little to work with in terms of the script is at times a little too apparent.
Master essentially feels like two movies in one. The first half is set in Korea, and involves plenty of setup and plot development as proceedings build to a raid on Byung-hun’s home, with the intention of seizing a ledger containing the names of those in power who he’s been paying off. However he ultimately gets away, escaping with both the ledger and $3 billion, and sets sail for Manila in the Philippines. After a climatic car chase and fight between Dong-won and a masked assailant in a tunnel, he’s ultimately left high and dry with no more evidence than what he began with, while Woo-bin is marked as both a traitor to One Network and ends up on the receiving end of a blade.
It’s only when the pair get wind of Byung-hun’s whereabouts that they decide to team up in order to redeem themselves, and get the bad guy once and for all. This basically sees proceedings hit reset, as everyone packs up and heads to Manila for a second crack at taking down Byung-hun and his cohorts, and the remainder of the movie is set for the most part in the Filipino capital. While most other reviews for Master will skim past this point, it’s worth noting that the Filipino senator that Byung-hun’s CEO attempts to woo while in Manila, is played by none other than Monsour Del Rosario. Yes, the same Monsour Del Rosario from such 90’s action movies as Ultracop 2000, Techno Warriors, and Bloodfist 2. Since those days of appearing in action cheapies, Del Rosario has become (at the time of writing) the congressman for a district of Manila, so can kind of be viewed as playing himself.
The change in locale certainly plays a big part in keeping things from appearing too repetitive, with the slums of Manila acting as a sharp contrast to the extravagant life Byung-hun was living in Seoul. His pitch perfect Filipino accented English is also a plus, which he learnt specifically for the role, and makes his attempts to swindle Del Rosario into coughing up billions of dollars for a proposed eco-city, which he has no plans to ever build, all the more entertaining. It’s a credit to both the script, and Byung-hun’s acting, that the switch to English never glaringly stands out as it did in similar efforts such as The Berlin File, with some lines even being quote worthy. At one point Byung-hun quips “Senator, let the children play on the grass, and not in the trash.” A line which delivers the intended comedic effect.
It’s perhaps indicative of the script as a whole that we get to spend the most time with the villain, and indeed at times even feel endeared to him. However Master can’t quite escape from the fact that it’s very much a talk-heavy movie, while seeming to strive to be something more action orientated. The action quota is in fact minimal, and while the initial Seoul based climax in the tunnel is a brief but suitably tense confrontation, a final shoot out on the streets of Manila almost feels shoe horned in, and doesn’t feel natural for the characters to be partaking in. The same criticism can be applied to the final scene as a whole, as Eui-seok seems determined to allow proceedings to end with a bang, despite the majority of what’s come before not really being indicative of such a tone.
Indeed the epic runtime of 143 minutes doesn’t seem entirely justified. But thankfully Master coasts along on the stellar performances from its trio of leading men and supporting cast, which includes Jin Kyeong (who also featured in Eui-seok’s previous movie Cold Eyes) as Byung-hun’s business associate, Eom Ji-won as Dong-won’s partner, and the ever-present Oh Dal-soo. However with some additional trimming and the inclusion of a couple more action scenes, it’s easy to feel that underneath all of the talking and scenes of planning, there’s a much leaner movie that could have come to fruition. As it is, Master stands its ground as a middle-of-the-road thriller, bolstered by a high budget and A-grade actors who make it appear to be more. It’s a sleight of hand that Byung-hun’s character would be proud of.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10