Though its title might sound a little dry and academic, “An Ethics Lesson” (the literal English translation, “Ethics of Anger” might have been more suitable), is thankfully anything but. Marking the debut of writer/director Park Myung Rang, the film is a dark and nastily amusing look at modern Korean society and morality, following an unpleasant group of people who get caught up in an ever escalating web of violence following the death of a college student. Playing the gang of miscreants are an interesting ensemble cast, including Lee Je Hoon (“Architecture 101”), Jo Jin Woong (“Perfect Number”), Kwak Do Won (“A Company Man”), Kim Tae Hun (“Detective K”) and Moon So Ri (“Oasis”), who all sooner or later end up at each other’s throats.
The fun begins with young and apparently upstanding traffic cop Jung Hoon (Lee Je Hoon) spying on his beautiful neighbour, college student Jin Ah (Ko Sung Hee). Clearly an abnormal individual, Jung Hoon has her whole apartment wired for sound and video, and he spends his nights creepily watching her and editing her phone calls and conversations to make them sound like she’s his girlfriend. Things go astray when her unbalanced ex-boyfriend Hyun Soo (Kim Tae Hun) shows up one night, and after her married older lover professor Soo Taek (Kwak Do Won) leaves, apparently kills her. In possession of vital evidence but unable to go to the police, Jung Hoon finds himself in a difficult moral position, even more so when Soo Taek is arrested for the murder. An appearance by Jin Ah’s sleazy loan shark agent Myung Rok (Jo Jin Woong) makes an already bad situation worse, as does the presence of the professor’s wife Sun Hwa (Moon So Ri).
Despite being oddly pushed as an erotic thriller, “An Ethics Lesson” is a gleefully mean-spirited comedy thriller of ever worsening errors, Park Myung Rang engineering an intriguingly seedy setup and gradually allowing it to spin wildly out of control. The idea of taking an ensemble cast of recognisable faces and essentially making them all play unlikeable, unsympathetic and frankly wretched characters is a brave one, though it pays off well enough, the story more than holding the interest despite the fact that no viewer is likely to care about what happens to any of them. Indeed, Park seems to revel in this moral void and in manipulating his perverts, psychos and villains, and though it makes the film cold, it’s nevertheless involving and tense, in part due to game and amusing performances from all the leads, some of whom are playing very successfully against type.
As a high concept drama thriller, the film certainly works well, and though arguably a touch over-plotted and unfocused at times, it’s generally sharp and slick, managing to distract the viewer from its various inconsistencies through coffin humour and entertainingly immoral behaviour. Presumably intended as a vicious satire of sorts, though a little too over the top in its characters to convince as social commentary, it’s really a great deal of fun, with an imaginative series of twists and well-timed revelations keeping things moving at a brisk pace throughout. While the ending itself has a sense of inevitability, the script has a few surprises up its sleeve along the way, and it’s definitely the kind of film which viewers are better off sitting back and going along for the ride with rather than trying to second guess where it’s going.
Park does a solid job as a first-time director, and the film is visually quite strong, with some neat editing tricks and digital camerawork linking its various narrative leaps backwards and forwards. Though it relies upon the re-use of locations to a certain degree, it never feels too clumsy or repetitive, even during some of its less clever storytelling tricks, and there’s a polished air to the proceedings. This though is perhaps the film’s one real slight failing, in that it feels a little too clean, and though there is violence and blood by the end, it lacks a certain edge, or the kind of fiendishness or brutality which would have given it real teeth.
Still, as it stands, “An Ethics Lesson” is suitably savage, and watching its reprehensible characters taunt, torment, deceive and assault each other makes for a very enjoyable watch. Though slight, and not quite showing the courage of its convictions, shorn of melodrama or pity it’s definitely a worthy alternative to most Korean thrillers, at least for those viewers happy just to take in the spectacle of bad people doing bad things to each other.
Park Myung-Rang (director) / Park Myung-Rang (screenplay)
CAST: Jin-woong Jo … Myung-Rok
Do Won Kwak … Soo-Taek
Eun-woo Lee … Eun-yeong
Je-hoon Lee … Jung -Hoon
So-ri Moon … Sun-Hwa
Ko Sung-Hee … Jin-A
Kim Tae-Hun … Hyun-Soo