The works of Japanese novelist Higashino Keigo have proved almost as popular in Korea as they have at home, with recent films “White Night” and “Perfect Number” both having been adapted from his works. “Broken” follows in this trend, based upon his book “The Hovering Blade”, which already made it to Japanese screens back in 2009, a dark psychological revenge drama directed by Lee Jeong Ho, his first outing since his 2010 debut “Best Seller”.
Award-winning actor Jung Jae Young (“The Fatal Encounter”) stars as factory worker Lee Sang Hun, a widowed father whose wife died of cancer and who lives for his 15 year old daughter Soo Jin (Lee Soo Bin). One day his world falls apart when she is snatched from the street by unknown assailants and raped and murdered, her body dumped in a filthy abandoned bathhouse. With the police failing to solve the case or even find any clues, Lee spends his days waiting at the station hoping for news, until he receives a mysterious text message tipping him to the identity and address of one of the perpetrators. Without telling the police, Lee heads to the apartment, and though the suspect turns out to be a teenage boy, he clumsily kills him anyway, before setting off to track down the rest of the gang. As news of his revenge campaign starts to spread, the detective on the case (Lee Sung Min, “The Attorney”) tries to intercept him before he can claim another victim, despite feeling sympathy for his plight.
Dour Korean revenge thrillers have been ten a penny on screens for over a decade now, and so it’s perhaps a little hard to get excited about “Broken” based on its familiar sounding premise. Thankfully, as with anything from the mind of Higashino Keigo, the film is different enough to most of its genre kinfolk to make it worthwhile, focusing more on the moral dilemma that Lee’s vengeance suggests, and by steadfastly refusing to provide the kind of escapist thrills that tend to make the form popular. Certainly, Lee Jeong Ho doesn’t try to add any kind of obvious catharsis to the source material, and never tries to make his protagonist sympathetic, not shying away from the fact that he is in fact killing juveniles. Though it’s made clear that the justice system is unlikely to give him any sense of satisfaction, it’s equally plain that his actions are bringing him nothing but misery, and as such the film is far more about punishment, both of the guilty and himself, rather than revenge in the traditional sense.
Through this, it’s a film which covers some challenging and uncomfortable moral ground – though it’s common enough for revenge thrillers to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, “Broken” is one of the few films to really try and make viewers actually feel bad about it. Unsurprisingly, Lee does keep a certain distance from his characters, much like Higashino in his novels, and it’s a cold affair which engages through its themes and narrative rather than emotion or melodrama. This might well make it a frustrating watch for those looking for something more straightforward and viscerally rewarding, though Jung Jae Young’s excellent and painfully believable performance does ensure at least a certain level of involvement.
Lee’s stripped down and economic approach to the material is fitting and effective, and the film is all the better for employing a direct narrative rather than the kind of fractured or chronologically skewed storytelling that other directors have used to try and distract from the dark simplicity of the essential revenge tale. Slow moving and deliberately paced, the film does require patience, with its violent, claustrophobically staged kill scenes being tense and tough to watch, and never used merely to inject a little pace or excitement. This is matched with some visually impressive use of bleak, snowbound languages, which Lee mines for maximum atmosphere, in particular during the final act, and the fact that film looks like it must have been a demanding endurance test of a shoot adds a welcome touch of gritty realism.
Though perhaps too grim to recommend as actual entertainment, “Broken” is an accomplished and gripping drama, and both another solid Higashino Keigo and a fine sophomore outing for Lee Jeong Ho. Anchored by Jung Jae Young and earning points for bravely asking searching questions of the viewer, though it does unavoidably feel familiar, it at least has a depth rarely seen in the revenge genre.
Jeong-ho Lee (director)/Keigo Higashino (novel), Jeong-ho Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong … Sang-hyun
Sung-min Lee … Detective Eok-Gwan
Jun-Young Seo … Detective