“Ordinary Person” – 2017 New York Asian Film Festival Review

Kim Bong-han’s sophomore effort “Ordinary Person” (보통사람, 2017) starts out as your standard potboiler. Overeager detective Sung (Son Hyun-joo) has a penchant for using violence and threats to put away whatever perp his boss sends him out to catch. A down and out cop, with a mute wife and a disabled kid, Sung’s career prospects are nil. At best, he can expect a pat on the back from his bosses for a job well done.

His current assignment in the film is a simple one: catch a two-bit hood who’s been dodging every attempt at capture. What Sung ends up getting is a stuttering fool, Tae-sung (Jo Dal-hwan), who cops to murder. It appears to be an open and shut case; however, it’s the late 80’s in South Korea, an era that began with the death of one dictator and the birth of several petty tyrants vying for power. Any other period in Korea’s history and men like Sung would have had stayed stagnant in no-nothing positions.  The tenuous hold that the government has in the system has led many to profit, mainly as pawns for men like Kyoo-nam (Jang Hyuk), a cold and apathetic agent from Korea’s national intelligence service who entangles himself into Sung’s life and Tae-sung’s murder case.

Severely hampering Sung’s deal with the devil – to frame Tae-sung for a string of murders done by Korea’s first serial killer – is his friendship with a newspaper reporter, Jae-jin (Kim Sang-ho). Serving as his conscience, Jae-jin harangues Sung to do the right thing, but with a family to take care of the detective is forced to compromise his ethics.

Where “Ordinary Person” shines is the way the narrative deals with Sung’s moral dilemma. Offering up no easy answers, it’s not too difficult for an engaged viewer to side with Sung’s decision to toe the party line, especially since the results would mean a happier life for his family. Instead, the film reveals the reality of those times. A fear of torture and distrust for idealistic notions of law and order made doing the right thing impossible for most people, because to stand up against the machinery of government meant ultimate death. And the director does not shy away from showing onscreen in gruesome detail exactly what happened to those who refused to follow orders.

For as empires gave way to nation states, those wielding power saw the value that stories had in legitimizing their authority, disarming their opponents, and inventing false narratives that reaffirmed their brutal acts as the “normal” way of doing things. Yet, Kim Bong-han’s picture is not defeatist. It unabashedly shows, by the end of the movie, that though the thumb of oppression can crush one “Ordinary Person,” a mass of ordinary people can rewrite an entire nation’s narrative, from tyranny to democracy.

“Ordinary Person” screens at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival on July 4 at 2:45 p.m. at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  For tickets, go to filmlinc.com.