Why has it taken me nearly a year to get around to watching this? I really enjoyed director Choi Dong-hoon’s last two films, “The Thieves” and “Woochi”. And I think my long standing adoration of most of Jun Ji-hyun’s work is a matter of record. Yet it seems to have taken me until a long jet-lagged Sunday in Pune to arrive before watching it. Is it a case of being fearful that it wasn’t going to live up to expectations? Or was it more wanting to save an expected treat for the right occasion?
“Assassination” is set in 1930’s Korea, under the governance of occupying Japanese forces. Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae) is responsible for one of the resistance groups. He gathers together a special team to assassinate both the Governor-general and Korean sympathiser Kang In-gook (Lee Geung-young). The team of Chu (Cho Jin-woong), Hwang (Choi Doek-moon), and Ahn (Jun Ji-hyun) have however actually been set up – Yeom has been turned into a Japanese agent. He has employed a mercenary nicknamed Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and his assistant (Oh Dal-su) to stop the assassination and expose those involved….
…At least that’s what I think. Because the plot of “Assassination” is byzantine to say the least. Characters are constantly swapping sides and only give hints to their motivations. And without wanting to give too much away, things get even more complicated when we get the hoary old “identical twin” trope thrown into the mix.
The problem is that the film is quite frankly way too long and not particularly well crafted in terms of plot. It takes an age to move the characters into various situations, yet spends almost no time at all treating them as characters. Their motivations and even personalities are merely hinted at. In this kind of film you somewhat expect that to be true of the Japanese occupying forces, but here I was struggling to work out the underlying characters of any of our players. You need more than little sentences and brief flashbacks to flesh out people that you want the audience to actually care about.
So what we end up with is a bit like watching a game of cinematic chess. Fortunately this is an incredibly good looking game of chess, full of period details and exciting moments of action. Whatever faults with the overall story-telling, the set pieces well and truly deliver.
The whole identical twin plot is an example of what is wrong with the film. It is all set up in the opening sequence, but then forgotten about for an hour. It’s revelation is frankly nothing more than a co-incidence. Now it could have all been set up to make use of this, trope or not. But instead our characters just happen to fall accidentally into this set up. When a film is a bum-numbing 140 minutes long, I do somehow expect much better plotting than this.
As you might expect with such a strong cast, the acting is pretty good, even if a) the actors don’t have an awful lot to work with and b) it really is a bunch of asian guys with mustaches which can make it hard to follow, and Jun Ji-hyun twice over. Lee Jung-jae comes out of this the best, even if he ends up being the villain of the piece. Jun might be in the middle of her second period of Asian super-stardom (once she was “My Sassy Girl”, and now she has “A Love From Another Star”) but she really has so little to do here other than look fairly dour and act pretty bad-ass. Her turn as the other sister, Mitsuko, shows some promise, but it is over before it has really begun, only getting to share a solitary scene with herself.
I know I am being hard on this film. It is actually quite enjoyable as a way of enjoying a very very big bag of popcorn. There is some great action and sometimes the occasional laugh. It’s a caper movie re-imagined as a war film. It looks great. But when you make a film with it’s DNA being a complicated plot and complicated character motivations, you need to be able to join up all the dots. I am afraid because “Assassination” fails to do that, then I can only award it a Mildly Recommended.