City of Fathers (2009) Movie Review

“City of Fathers” is another of those Korean films whose title and DVD box art makes it pretty difficult to know what to expect – in this case possibly hard boiled action, emotional drama or wacky comedy. Thankfully, the film is mainly a mixture of the first two, with director Park Ji Won weaving together different elements into an effective and compelling whole, dealing with love, violence and sadness in equal measures. The film boasts an interesting cast, not least due to the presence of Yoo Seung Ho, once hailed as the ‘nation’s little brother’, following up his role in teen detective drama “4th Period Mystery” with something tougher and more substantial. The film is very much an ensemble affair, and he shares the grim limelight with Kim Young Ho (“Portrait of a Beauty”) and Ko Chang Suk (“Insadong Scandal”) as two rather unworthy father figures.

Yoo plays Jong Chul, a teenager who has led a hard life following the death of his mother, being stuck with his gambling, alcoholic father Kang Soo (Ko Chang Suk), who clearly couldn’t care less about him. Kang Soo spends most of his days running from loan sharks and tricking girls into prostitution, with his luck on the verge of running out. When Jong Chul is diagnosed with cancer of the kidney, circumstances impress upon him a change, and he tries to persuade the poor lad’s biological father, underworld thug Tae Suk (Kim Young Ho) to help, only to find that he is uninterested in saving his life.

Although it may well sound suspiciously like yet another Korean melodrama, “City of Fathers” wastes no time in setting out its stall, opening with domestic violence and bloody baseball bat beatings. Dealing with themes of debt collecting, prostitution, illegal immigration and back alley organ surgery, the film does at times make for pretty grim viewing, though director Park turns this to his advantage, making its glimpses of hope and warmth all the more effective. Whilst there have been many Korean outings of late dealing with low down, unpleasant protagonists staggering unwillingly along the road to redemption, the film differs from the likes of “The Chaser” and “Breathless” by taking a somewhat more emotional approach, in particular during its latter stages.

Kang Soo gets most of the screen time, and he really is a nasty piece of work, with his reaction to Jong Chul’s illness being to shrug and declare that he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, to insist on having a few drinks and then to proceed to beat the hell out of him on regular occasions. Being overweight and ragged, he arguably makes for an even less appealing leading man than in the afore-mentioned films, and although his journey to becoming some semblance of a good father is rather sudden, it does carry with it quite a punch to the gut. Tae Suk is also an interesting figure, and Park wisely spends a fair amount of time following him around on his daily misdeeds, fleshing him out just about enough for the downbeat climax to hit home.

Although the film does get a little sappy in places, it generally keeps its hard edge and dignity, with plenty of violence scattered throughout. Inevitably, there are a few amusingly overwrought scenes of the male leads howling at each other and cursing their fates, which do make for some unintentional laughs. As a result, the film is perhaps not quite as moving as it could have been, though it does make up for this through its relative complexity and overall sense of earnestness. Park’s direction is fittingly naturalistic, and the film wins points for offering a decidedly unglamorous depiction of the dregs of the criminal world, most of whose denizens are portrayed as wretched miscreants only too eager to do each other over for cash or position. The female cast in particular come off badly, mostly only being around to be betrayed or beaten.

Whilst this may suggest an air of unremitting grimness, Park does show a quirky sense of humour, and the film has a few light moments and odd touches that help it to stand out from the pack. Though the film does seem to lift a little from Park Chan Wook’s classic “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance”, its kidney stealing shenanigans, which come complete with bizarre fetishistic nurse, are certainly entertaining, and this helps to keep things moving along at a decent pace, as the viewer is encouraged to guess who will be left with one, or indeed none.

As a result, “City of Fathers” is an enjoyable mix, combining violence, family drama and a handful of strange gags to good effect. Benefitting from a strong cast and a genuine heart worn on its dirty sleeve, whilst not scaling the giddy heights of its similarly themed peers, it is certainly a worthwhile effort.

Park Ji-won-I (director)
CAST: Kim Yeong-ho, Ko Chang-seok, Yoo Seung-ho, Jeong Seon-kyeong, Kim Jeong-hak, Jo Jin-woong

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