The Divine Move

This year I really haven’t been keeping on top of movies from Korea at all.  Some might say that is because the industry over there is in a bit of a creative downturn at present, but with one eye on a rather worryingly empty end of the year top 10, I have decided to make the last few days of December a bit of a Korean catch-up!!  And maybe I’ll capture a couple of gems along the way?  So first up, how about a revenge movie, incongruously based around the board game Go (or Baduk as it is known in Korea), with an all-star cast, and with that level of violence you only really get from Korean films?  Yeah, that’s what I thought to, so read on…

photo443524The Divine Move” starts with Go player Tae-wook (Jung Woo-sung) having one of those days that can only be described as bad.  He starts off by losing a televised match, and then is coerced into helping (i.e. help him cheat) his brother in an underground gambling game, run by a gangster who goes by the epithet “The Executioner” (Lee Beom-soo).  It goes really really badly, with Tae-wook’s brother not only dead, but our hero convicted of his murder.  Seven years in prison is not only a long time to consider revenge, but Tae-wook beefs up not only his body, but also his Go skills.  Upon release, he works on taking revenge on The Executioner, by the time honoured fashion of getting together a group of people to help him get close to his nemesis and his gang.  He co-opts in his brother’s friend “Trick” (Kim In-kwon) a loud mouth con merchant; a blind alcoholic Go Master “Drinking Jesus” (Ahn Sung-ki); and a junkyard inventing genius “Carpenter” (Ahn Kil-kang).  The four work on taking out The Executioners gang, including the sharp and handsome “Player” (Choi Jin-hyuk); “Bullseye” (Jung Hae-kyung); and the beautiful “Belly Button” (Lee Si-young).  There are lives and reputations on the line here, not to mention all that cash, with the life of a child prodigy Go player who is being used by our bad guys.

Phew.  Yes I know, I went all out there describing the cast.  But that is one of the wonderful things about this film – it really is quite star-studded.  Clearly front and centre is the oh-so-handsome Jung Woo-sung, who does fairly well despite his limitations as an actor, especially early in the film, where encumbered by one of the worst beards in modern cinematic history, he actually pulls off being a somewhat weedy and nervous guy.  Once leaving prison though, he is nothing more than cool and handsome.  Luckily though, the rest of the cast is great.  Kim In-kwon does his normal comic relief thing, but actually rather than being incredibly annoying, his moments of silly humour work well to punctate the violence (more on this later), and when things finally catch up with him, you really feel empathy for him.  Ahn Sun-ki is clearly the best on show here, with the most evocative storyline, beautifully underplayed.  I only know Lee Beom-soo from his humorous work, but here is is brilliant, a terrifying and intense bad guy that I actually had to go check was actually him when watching the film.  Everyone else is fairly good, if lacking a little character development. 

The only regret for me personally is that the wonderful Lee Si-young (who owned my Top 10 of the year last time with 2 entries) doesn’t get a great role at all – her motivations are unclear, and she doesn’t really do very much other than flirt with our handsome hero.  Which is not only a shame because the only female character of note is so underwritten, but let’s face it, the girl is a real-life boxer, she could kick everyone’s ass for real!

Go is an important part of this film, and I am not alone in simply not understanding the game at all.  So when the film is structured into little segments all titled around the game, I probably lost some of the meaning.  But I guess it is a strategy game, and that’s enough to understand the idea that there is a long game in progress here, and sometimes you take strategic losses to make future gains.  Oh, and maybe the final battle between our two top dogs being played out with one dressed fully in White, and his opponent in Black?  It’s not subtle, but then this movie isn’t really about subtle.

Because, although the film never misses a chance for all the characters to sit down and have a game of Go, it’s usually just a preface for extreme violence.  Want to see what happens when someone really driven and angry does the “flick the forehead” thing on a lesser opponent?  Then this is the film for you.  It’s bloody and violent and actually at times you want to look away from the screen.  Yes it is all a bit cartoon-like in it’s over-the-top nature, but at least there are consequences.  People really get hurt and some people don’t make it to the end of the film.  And guess what?  If you are made to swallow a bowl of Go counters?  It isn’t something easily shrugged off!  There’s a moment or two of surrealistic oddness also – at one point two characters have a shirtless game of Go in a giant freezer.  Then they decide to have a bloody fight.  The Go and the fight?  Makes sense, a message is being sent.  But why half naked in a freezer?

Director Jo Bum-goo impressed me a while back with the silly yet effective “Quick”, and here he has done it again.  It won’t win any awards for clever plotting (boy are there plot holes), smart dialogue or amazing camera work, but the guy makes his cast look great, touches emotional bases, and juggles a big cast well.  Not only that, but how many times have I complained Korean movies are just too long?  This one touches the 2 hour mark, but it rattles along at such a pace.  In fact, you do wish certain parts of the movie (the prison time especially) were given a little more time.  Only the quieter end sequence doesn’t quite work for me, although it is rather touching.

This one isn’t art.  And it is totally stupid.  But I had a wonderful time watching it.  If you like your popcorn with a little blood and fragments of broken teeth, a couple of sterling performances, and then be able to pop your brain back in?  I think you might enjoy this.  An unexpected Highly Recommended.

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