There has been so many South Korean and Japanese gangster films that they deserve a subgenre of their own — the Traditional Asian Gangster films, which exists only from South Korea and Japan. Why lump them all in the same category? For one, the South Koreans and Japanese share almost identical ideas about what a “gangster” is. There are aberrations, of course, but for the most part Traditional Asian Gangster films are notoriously faithful to their conventions. Two of the most prominent tried-and-true you should expect is a lot of slapping and physical abuse, and a hierarchy of boss and underlings that relies on deference for tradition rather than anything tangible.
Ki-duk Kim’s “Bad Guy” is about Han-gi (Jae-hyeon Jo), a antisocial gangster and pimp who notices college student Sun-hwa (Won Seo) while waiting at a bench one day. After Han-gi is beaten up by a group of bystanders for attacking Sun-hwa with a kiss in front of her boyfriend, Han-gi hatches a plan to “turn out” Sun-hwa. It works, and Sun-hwa is added to Han-gi’s stable of whores. As the days, weeks, and months wear on, Han-gi begins to express more and more feelings for the reluctant Sun-hwa, who may or may not be warming to the idea of being nothing more than what her Madame calls a “$50 whore.”
First of all, “Bad Guy” is not an entertaining movie in so many ways. It’s not a terrible movie exactly; it’s just not all that entertaining. It doesn’t touch the heart, doesn’t make me think, and surely doesn’t make me feel as if I’ve just sat through something worth 2 hours of my life. Even at an hour and 40 minutes, “Bad Guy” is too long, too meandering, and in the end, too pointless. Like many South Korean dramas, it internalizes everything, and the process of “getting there” is a laborious sequence of static events made even more laborious by the realization that “there” is not worth reaching.
Written and directed by Ki-duk Kim (“Coast Guard”), “Bad Guy” sometimes comes across as a chauvinistic South Korean man’s fantasy. Take, for example, the movie’s main premise: Pimp Han-gi, realizing that he’s hopelessly attracted to Sun-hwa but unable to show or even express his emotions in any “healthy” manner, decides to abduct her and force her into prostitution. She’s forced to entertain an endless stream of men (many of them forced to resort to raping her) while Han-gi watches voyeuristically from the other side of a one-way mirror. The reason for Han-gi’s inability to consummate his desire for her is eventually revealed, along with an explanation as to why Han-gi rarely speaks, but by that point I was just hoping this thing would just end already. Writer/director Ki-duk Kim is obviously seeking to explore the concept of “love” in all of its odd and strange forms and reasons. It’s an interesting idea, but a terrible concept for a visual medium.
The chauvinistic underbelly of “Bad Guy” is further advanced by Sun-hwa’s gradual acceptance of her status as a cheap “$50 whore.” Her attempts to escape are weak and unconvincing. Consider this: Sun-hwa’s captors, Han-gi and two of his lieutenants, are not only without weapons, but seems incapable of watching her every hour of every day. And yet in the months that she’s in their custody, Sun-hwa makes an attempt to escape only once! It goes without saying that Sun-hwa’s subjugation at the hands of Han-gi and his pimps are whitewashed, as writer/director Kim wants us to just “accept it without question.”
Unfortunately I had a lot of questions, like: Where are Sun-hwa’s parents? Where is her boyfriend? She’s a college student who disappears one day with 3 strange men in a jeep and no one bothers to come looking for her? Where are the police? Is there such a thing as “Missing Persons” in South Korea? And why doesn’t she just run away from the display window where she’s supposed to attract customers and scream bloody murder for someone to call the cops or help her?
In any case, “Bad Guy” has such a been-there, done-that-hundreds-of-times vibe about it that I could predict almost every single upcoming plot point. There is nothing original about the film, and its flimsy, unbelievable premise didn’t help matters any. All the Traditional Asian Gangster conventions are present, and all the female characters act like mindless mannequins, existing for the purpose of entertaining our male characters. To say that Sun-Hwa, a supposed college student, has as much sense as the fake wigs she wears is an understatement. The male characters, for that matter, are not exactly Einstein themselves. Everyone has an I.Q. close to 50 and even less ability to make simple common sense decisions.
Movies are a visual medium, designed to stir emotions with its tapestry of images, sights, and sounds. “Bad Guy” is a lifeless carcass, devoid of any passion, and perhaps that’s the whole point. If it is, then I’ll gladly accept that “I just don’t get it” and move on to something else. Pointless filmmaking for the sake of pointlessness has never been my cup of tea.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-hyeon Jo Han-gi
Won Seo Sun-hwa