Director: Oh Seung-uk
Writer: Oh Seung-uk
Producer: Han Jae-duk
Cast: Jeon Do-Yeon, Kim Nam-Gil, Park Sung-Woong, Kwak Do-Won, Kim Min-Jae, Park Ji-Hwan, Ha Ji-Eun
Running Time: 118 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Director Oh Seung-wook may not be a name that’s immediately familiar to many fans of Korean cinema, and that’s forgivable. Seung-wook directed and wrote the criminally overlooked 2000 gangster flick Kilimanjaro. The movie featured Park Shin-yang as a police officer returning to his hometown to scatter the ashes of his twin, only to be mistaken for him by the local gangsters who it seemed his late brother had some dealings with. Deciding to play along under his brother’s alias, he’s soon hooked up with his siblings old gangster buddy, played by the legendary Ahn Seong-gi, and a dangerous game of false identity and questionable friendships is set in motion.
Despite being a solid entry into the gangster genre, Kilimanjaro wasn’t a box office success. It’s a shame, as had it been made just a few years later, once the Korean new wave movement was well and truly underway, I’m sure it would receive much more recognition and praise. However in a film industry as cutthroat as many of the gangsters it portrays, despite Seung-wook’s wishes to direct again, the various attempts to get his story ideas off the ground never ventured further than the pre-production stages. Instead, he returned to working in the capacity of script writing. Both Lee Chang-dong’s 1997 debut Green Fish, and Heo Jin-ho’s 1998 classic Christmas in August came from the pen of Seung-wook, and in the wake of sitting in the director’s chair, he’d go on to pen the likes of the 2002 psychological horror H, and 2004’s wrestling biopic Rikidozan.
Fourteen years on from Kilimanjaro, Seung-wook finally got the chance to make his sophomore feature, with The Shameless. Not only that, the script was attention grabbing enough for Park Chan-wook to come on-board in the capacity of ‘creative producer’. Described by the director himself as ‘a hardboiled romance noir’, the description of his creation hits the nail on the head pretty well. The plot follows a detective, played by Kim Nam-gil, who gets assigned to a murder case in which the culprit is obviously a gangster on the lam. To try and locate the suspect, Nam-gil decides to approach the gangster’s lover, played by Jeon Do-yeon. Leveraging some low-level thugs, he goes undercover as the new head of security at the hostess bar Do-yeon runs, however soon finds himself with conflicting feelings over Do-yeon’s debt laden lover.
Put simply, it’s the classic hardboiled tale of an undercover detective falling for a gangster’s moll, done Korean style. Seung-wook has said himself that in many ways he sees The Shameless as a kind of spiritual follow-up to Kilimanjaro, in terms of the way both movies see a character enter into the lives of another under a false identity. Here Ahn Seong-gi’s role is taken on by Jeon Do-yeon, and Park Shin-yang’s role is taken on by Kim Nam-gil. However the scenario in The Shameless is much more intimate than in Kilimanjaro, and as a result, despite what could be argued as a smaller scale, there actually feels like a lot more is at stake.
The Shameless works as the flip side of the coin to each of the 2 productions that Nam-gil and Do-yeon starred in during 2014. Nam-gil co-headlined the lacklustre high-seas adventure flick Pirates alongside Son Ye-jin, while Do-yeon was dreadfully miscast in the equally awful Memories of the Sword, despite a cast that featured both Lee Byung-hun and Kim Go-eun. Thankfully their roles in The Shameless more than make up for their respective misfires, as both do a worthy job of portraying how, while their characters outwardly portray a tough exterior to the world, there’s a deep vulnerability running just underneath.
Those looking for a tightly knit detective tale may come away disappointed, as Seung-wook paces his noir with a slow but steady hand. Juggling the elements of being a thriller, murder mystery, gangster flick, and romantic noir all at the same time takes a certain level of talent, and thankfully this is a talent that the director has an abundance of. Seung-wook has a strong understanding of the visual medium, and as a result some of the moments that have the most impact in The Shameless are those that involve no words, but rather a gesture between two characters, or a briefly glimpsed facial expression. My favorite scene of the whole movie involves Nam-gil just after he drops off Do-yeon in his car, it’s a brief scene with a seemingly meaningless gesture that takes place as he’s driving away, but in the context of what’s happening at this point in the plot, it speaks volumes.
That’s not to say that The Shameless is without violence though, indeed there are a handful of brief but explosive scenes that should keep any fan of the Korean gangster genre happy. The highlight being when Nam-gil first encounters the gangster he’s been looking for, played with an intimidating level of physical menace by Park Seong-woong (who also starred in another movie during 2014 – the excellent The Office), the pair go at it in an intensely physical and punch heavy few seconds in the parking lot of Do-yeon’s apartment. However unlike movies made around the same time, such as No Tears for the Dead and The Divine Move, the action is not the selling point here. Rather it’s the relationship between Nam-gil and Do-yeon, and it’s a credit to Seung-wook that it never devolves into the typical K-drama trope of the love triangle.
The camerawork and soundtrack play a significant part in setting the tone of The Shameless. Thanks to Do-yeon’s role as a hostess club manager, most of the proceedings take place at night, or at the time in the early hours of the morning when the first hints of light cast a murky ambience in the air. The winding networks of Seoul’s hilly streets almost take on a character of their own, highlighted none more so than in a fantastic opening tracking shot that takes place during those early hours. Opening on a construction site, the camera pans down into the tightly packed residential buildings of a local estate, before settling on Nam-gil and following him through the winding back alleys of the neighbourhood. The cinematographer, Kang Kuk-hyun, definitely knows his trade. Combined with Cho Young-wuk’s moody score, a regular Park Chan-wook collaborator, the rhythm and beats of his music compliment the tone of the movie perfectly.
As much as Nam-gil holds his own when he’s onscreen, Do-yeon’s screen presence is simply magnetic, and despite being almost the only female in the whole cast, when the credits role you’re left with the distinct impression that this was her movie. An actress with more awards to her name than perhaps any other in Korea, including Best Actress at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival for her role in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, her performance in The Shameless should hopefully see her earning another one. We’ve been told everything we need to know about her character before she even appears onscreen, but even knowing this, the way she encapsulates the traits of a woman with nothing left to lose provides a strong anchor for the movie. In a way Nam-gil’s character becomes a proxy for the audience, as we gradually witness that he too is taken in by her resilient demeanour, and his character becomes the embodiment of what we as the audience are feeling toward her dilemma.
In its native Korea it wouldn’t surprise me if The Shameless has a hard time finding an audience, much the same way Kilimanjaro did 14 years earlier. It’s not enough of a straight up gangster flick to appeal to the typical male demographic, but then it’s not enough of a romantic flick to appeal to a wider female audience. As mentioned earlier though, Seung-wook knows exactly what it is that he’s created, and if you’re looking for a hardboiled romance noir, then The Shameless shamelessly delivers exactly that.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10