“The Shameless” – 2015 NY Korean Film Festival Review

 

For fans of the Korean crime genre, Oh Seung-uk is fondly remembered as Lee Chang-dong’s screenwriter in “Green Fish” (1997) and the director of “Kilimanjaro” (2000), a little-known gangster noir that was ignored by critics and audiences alike when it was first released. After more than a decade away from the spotlight, he premiered “The Shameless” (무뢰한, 2014) at Cannes earlier this year. Although the picture got quite a lot of press, mainly emphasizing on the director’s long absence and the performance of actress Jeon Do-yeon, the film managed to only do average business.

It is a testament to Jeon’s natural charisma and acting ability that, in a film made up primarily of male heavies, she alone can rescue “The Shameless” from being completely unremarkable. The film suffers greatly from a subpar script and, aside from Jeon, actors who are merely a jumble of characterizations. Add to that the fact that they often speak their lines as if in contempt of the words and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a grueling 118-minute viewing experience.

Born from a very simple well-worn premise, a cat-and-mouse game between cop and criminal, “The Shameless” plods along hitting all the requisite crime picture signposts. Kim Nam-gil plays Jung Jae-gon, the detective assigned the task of apprehending the killer Park Joon-kil (Park Sung-woong).  Rounding out this soon-to-be love triangle is Jeon as Park’s weary girlfriend Kim Hye-kyung. Interspersed between the middling chase plot, Oh also tacks on a subplot about a wannabe big shot (Kim Min-jae) working for a never-seen corporate vice president whose obsession with Hye-kyung results in disastrous consequences for our three main characters.  As the film reaches its midpoint, the director tries valiantly to rescue his audience from boredom by introducing a lot of needless plot contrivances that are sadly far too predictable to be entertaining.

What saves the picture from being a complete waste of time is the director’s decision to downplay the two male leads’ screen time and focus more on Jeon’s role of the jaded hostess girlfriend. Jeon doesn’t overplay the character’s anger at her current lot in life nor does she overreach by making Hye-kung overly sympathetic. Bridging those two extremes, she actually seems real, a sharp contrast to the rest of the cast.

Kim Nam-gil may have achieved a modicum of fame and success as a TV and movie actor, but his work in “The Shameless” leaves much to be desired. No matter how much he may pout on camera, he is unconvincing as the cynical, seen-too-much, nihilistic detective that the movie keeps pushing us to believe him to be. A wooden delivery of his lines and a poor attempt at seething anger will likely result in a facepalm by the viewer. Kim, who has the difficult job of portraying a cop trying to do his job while being in love with the wrong woman, is completely out of his league with this role.  One wonders just how much better “The Shameless” would have been if Lee Jung-jae had not suffered injuries during an earlier job, forcing the actor to drop out of Oh’s film.  Aside from Kim, the rest of the cast does a serviceable enough job in the picture, yet no one really stands out.

Though many may have waited for Oh Seung-uk’s return to cinema, “The Shameless” is sadly a step backward for the celebrated writer-director. Although Jeon Do-yeon turns in a great performance and Kang Guk-hyun’s camera work saves the movie from being a glorified TV drama, this film has none of the fun, excitement, or poignancy that the best in the genre can elicit from even the most jaded of audiences.

“The Shameless” screens at the Museum of the Moving Image on Sat., Nov. 7, at 6 p.m. as part of the New York Korean Film Festival.  For ticket information, go to movingimage.us.