Although coffee might not sound like the most obvious hook for a thriller, it’s very much at the heart of romantically tinged Korean espionage drama “Gabi”. Another period piece for “Hwang Jin Yi” director Jang Yoon Hyun, the film was based on the novel “Russian Coffee” by Kim Tak Hwan, and follows a pair of coffee and gold thieves who are forced by the Japanese into a plot to kill the Emperor. Playing the two reluctant spies in question are actor Ju Jin Mo (recently in the Korean remake of “A Better Tomorrow”) and actress Kim So Yeon (also in the popular television drama “IRIS” and its film version), with Park Hee Soon (“The Client”) as the Emperor and Yoo Sun (“Romantic Heaven”) as a Japanese agent.
The film is set in 19th century Korea, a time when the Emperor Gojong, 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty (Park Hee Soon), was in hiding in the Russian Legislation after the killing of his wife by Japanese assassins. Illichi (Ju Jin Mo) and Danya (Kim So Yeon) are coffee and gold stealing bandits who are captured after a train heist by Russian soldiers, and saved by the Japanese on the condition that they join Operation Gabi, an undercover mission to kill the Emperor. The two are separated, Illichi joining the Japanese army and Danya working her way into Gojong’s service as a skilled coffee maker, though meet again as their dangerous objective draws near, pushing them to reconsider their loyalty to their country.
“Gabi” (the title refers to what coffee was called when it was first introduced to Korea) certainly has a lot going on, with a complex plot that packs in plenty of twists and turns The film wins points for an intelligent and non-patronising script, and though based on a fictional novel comes across as a historically accurate and politically charged affair, with a keen eye for small details and intrigues. Jang Yoon Hyun does a good job of juggling the film’s many elements and subplots, and though it does get a little caught up in its many narrative intricacies at times, it never gets too dry or dialogue heavy. In this respect, the film is very much in line with Jang’s acclaimed 2007 outing “Hwang Jin Yi”, being both entertaining and immaculately constructed.
The characters themselves are similarly multi-layered, most of whom are harbouring at least one secret identity or ambiguous motivation, and this does result in some engaging and occasionally unpredictable drama. Illichi and Danya make for interesting protagonists and the film thankfully never worries too much about playing them as tragically separated lovers, the romantic element taking a back seat to wider concerns. Ju Jin Mo and Kim So Yeon both deliver controlled and effective performances, initially keeping their emotions tempered and slowly opening up as things progress.
Though the film apparently had its budget cut during shooting, it’s still a luxurious and expensive looking production, benefitting from international shooting locations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The costumes, sets and overall look of the film are all impressive and convincing, and this goes some way to giving it the air of a polished, mature drama. Jang works in some attractive visuals, with plenty of lingering shots of coffee being prepared, all of which fits very well with its upper class brand of espionage. Wisely, the film largely steers clear of the kind of action set pieces which might have disrupted its considered pacing and structure, and is all the more tense as a result.
While “Gabi” may be a little slow and thoughtful for viewers in search of thrills and melodrama, it’s a rich, substantial offering that successfully works drama and suspense into a convincing and fascinating historical setting. Jang Yoon Hyun shows real craftsmanship in the director’s chair, and the film is another fine example of the kind of stately period pieces which Korean cinema seems to do so well.
Youn-hyun Chang (director) / Youn-hyun Chang (screenplay)
CAST: Jin-mo Ju … Ilyich
So-yeon Kim … Tanya
Hee-soon Park … King Gojong
Yoo Sun … Sadako
Deok-hyeon Jo … Seok-Joo