“Countdown” is an all star Korean thriller headlined by two of the country’s most popular talents, namely award winning actress Jeon Do Yeon (“The Housemaid”) and Jung Jae Young (“Moss”), who last appeared together back in 2002 in Ryoo Seung Wan’s “No Blood No Tears”. Combining tense action and tough melodrama, the film marks the debut of writer director Huh Jong Ho, and also features Lee Kyung Young (“A Better Tomorrow”), Oh Man Seok (“Finding Mr Destiny”) and Min from girl group Miss A in her first screen outing.
Jung Jae Young plays Gun Ho, a stoic debt collector with memory problems, who is himself deep in hock. After being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and only given a few months to live, he sets out trying to track down the five people who were donated the organs of his dead son some years back, hoping that they will return the favour. All refuse, apart from con artist Ha Yeon (Jeon Do Yeon), shortly to be released from prison, who agrees on the condition that he helps her track down a mysterious man (Lee Kyung Young) from her shady past. Although she’s clearly not the most trustworthy of partners, Gun Ho is forced to accept, though things quickly become more complicated as a gangster (Oh Man Seok) she once scammed comes after them looking for revenge.
“Countdown” certainly starts off as expected, as a fast moving suspense thriller revolving around Gun Ho rushing around with Ha Yeon trying to keep one step ahead of their various pursuers, the tension mounting as his time quickly runs out. This plays well and makes good use of its premise, Huh keeping things moving at a fast pace and working in some decent set pieces as well as a few flashes of violence, Gun Ho frequently whipping out an electrified baton which he uses to shock and pummel the many thugs he comes up against. The film is also pretty funny during its first act, with some sparky banter between the leads, and a few laughs at the expense of the near comic villains, with Oh Man Seok in particular hamming it up to amusing effect.
Although by the halfway mark the film seems to be settling in as an action caper, things undergo a dramatic shift. Whereas until this point the film’s various themes and emotional subplots had been kept largely to the background, Huh suddenly switches the focus to Gun Ho’s memory loss and his gradual remembrance of his son’s tragic death, resulting in an influx of maudlin flashbacks and him playing old tape recordings of the dead boy’s voice. This is coupled with the introduction of Ha Yeon’s estranged daughter (played by Min), their shaky relationship leading to more soul searching. While none of this is too unpalatable, it’s unambitious and standard stuff, and it does slow the film down and defuses much of the tension. Thankfully, things do pick up a bit towards the end, though the plot has few surprises up its sleeve, and some viewers may feel let down by Huh’s aiming for an emotionally cathartic rather than visceral and exciting climax.
This proves to be less of a problem than it might have been thanks to the presence of Jeon Do Yeon and Jung Jae Young, who carry the film and lift it above the limitations of its second half. Jeon in particular is on her usual great form, effortlessly switching Ha Yeon between ragged, frumpy convict and glamorous femme fatale, and adding more depth to her relationship with her daughter than the script really deserves. Jung is also effective as the haunted debt collector, and though his character development arc is eventually predictable, he makes for a likeably hard edged protagonist. The uneasy dynamic between the two is the most interesting in the film, eschewing the expected romance for something more subtly underplayed, with her constant scheming and efforts to ditch him making for its most entertaining moments.
In this respect, viewers do get what they pay for with “Countdown”, as it’s essentially a solid and generic film that receives a considerable boost from its talented high profile leads. Though it’s more effective during its fun and exciting earlier stages, Jeon Do Yeon and Jung Jae Young are as watchable and engaging as ever, enough so to hold the interest and keep things moving through to the end.
Huh Jong-ho (director) / Huh Jong-ho (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong … Tae Geon-ho
Do-yeon Jeon … Cha Ha-yeon
Dae-byeong Jeon … Kang Jang-je
Kyeong-yeong Lee … Jo Myeong-seok
Man-seok Oh … Swy