The film is a classy noir tale following gangster Sun Woo, a brutally efficient enforcer for Mr Kang. When Mr Kang asks Sun Woo to spy on his young girlfriend while he is away, Sun Woo is forced into a difficult situation - he sympathises with the young woman, and instead of calling his boss when he discovers the girl having an affair, he lets her go. Naturally Kang discovers the deception and deals with the betrayal harshly.
South Korean cinema seems to have a lot to say about revenge, and this film certainly fits that mold. Mr Kang's reaction is horribly over the top - he punishes Sun Woo with incredible severity. The scenes depicting this punishment are some of the most powerful I've watched this year. The terse, simple conversations between the two men are symptomatic of the confusingly wasteful situation. Sun Woo's betrayal is a betrayal of confidence, but as fellow mob bosses express to Mr Kang, he is overreacting in the worst possible way to a man who has served not just loyally but well for seven years. Sun Woo is beaten, buried alive and forced to dig himself out of a mud pit in the driving rain, and ultimately must justify himself to Kang over the phone. Kang not just demands, but needs to know the reasons for Sun Woo's betrayal - and ultimately his demands push Sun Woo too far. Believe me when I say that his escape from Kang's men and his avoidance of his fate is exhilarating cinema. The running time lets you know that he's going to make it, but the film certainly strings you along for the journey.
Sun Woo and Kang mirror one another in their urgency to understand the other - Kang's demands to understand why Sun Woo let the girl go, and Sun Woo's demands to know why Kang is so determined to destroy him. They destroy each other in their ruthless obsession, and the spiral towards the end takes in so many side characters that the final bloodbath is almost a relief to resolve all those conflicts.
I enjoyed this film as it explored the obsessions of men with revenge - if a woman was the catalyst for the conflict, she certainly wasn't the cause. The actions scenes are suburbly choreographed, the acting is great, and the story is sophisticated, albeit guilty of a belaboured ending. As a character study it was a joy - Sun Woo is a complex creation without ever getting bogged down in exposition or tedious rationalisations. The final scene shows him alone in the restaurant that he manages as a front for the illegal activities of Mr Kang. We've seen him in previous scenes a picture of absolute control and composure, eating immaculate desserts and drinking perfect espressos. In this final scene though, a flashback, he examines his reflection in the window before breaking composure to smile broadly and to start shadow boxing with himself. It sums up the man perfectly, a guy who can respond to adrenalin, who can thrive and succeed in chaos despite his absolute control over everything... as an occasional director myself, I love beats like this that represent a character better than any dialogue could manage.