With Korean crime and detective dramas of late having been a fairly straight-faced and generic bunch, rarely diverting too far from the given formula, the determinedly off beat “Going by the Book” comes as a breath of fresh air. Directed by first time helmer Ra Hee Chan and written by award winning scribe Jang Jin, who was responsible for the 2005 hit “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, the film cleverly subverts the conventions of the form by turning the traditional bank heist premise on its head, whilst at the same time managing to work in elements of satire and social criticism.
Set in the small Korean town of Sampo, whose citizens are apparently all quite well off, meaning that there are plenty of banks just begging to be robbed, the film begins as the new police chief (played by Son Byung Ho, also in “Running Wild” and “Vampire Cop Ricky”) decides that the best response to a recent crime wave is to instigate a new and radical training method. This odd scheme revolves around a mass role-playing exercise, in which some policemen are given the task of pretending to be criminals. Unfortunately for the chief, his fine plans blow up in his face after a particularly anal and rule abiding officer called Jung Do Man (Jung Jae Young, “Welcome to Dongmakgol”), who had recently been demoted from detective to traffic warden, takes things a little too far, turning a fake bank raid into a hostage crisis which threatens to humiliate the law on a national level.
“Going by the Book” certainly has an interesting and refreshingly original concept, which director Ra makes the most of, though a fair amount of the credit goes to writer Jang, whose script is creative and witty throughout. Despite the fact that the plot basically does play out along the given lines of the genre, from the bank robbery gradually turning sour and the police laying siege to the building, right through to the inevitable twists and turns of the final act bus escape, the film amusingly subverts and deconstructs virtually every cliché and motif of the form. Although there is a dash of the expected slapstick, for the most part the humour is of a far more subtle kind, with Jang bringing out and ridiculing the underlying social conventions and moral hypocrisy inherent in the situation. The main conceit tackled here is the way in which the innocent and those who follow the rules of society are often punished, and the film takes this to a farcically literal extreme, making for plenty of dryly ironic laughs.
Although the bank robbery and the hostage crisis are obviously fake, a situation from which the film similarly manages to wring plenty of wry humour, Ra is still able to achieve a fair amount of tension, not so much as to whether or not anyone is likely to die or go down in a hail of bullets (something which is established early on in suitably droll fashion, bravely deflecting viewer expectations) but as to just how far the game of cat and mouse is going to go. The fact that the entertainingly stoic Jung Do Man is simply doing as he is told adds a definite satirical edge to the proceedings, and there is a certain sense of growing injustice which works well in the context.
Jung Jae Young does a good job in the role, managing bring a vital touch of sympathetic humanity to a character who could easily have remained little more than a distant cipher. As a result, the viewer is gradually drawn into the plot, and the film works well both as an intellectual exercise and as a thriller in its own right. This in itself is a very difficult balancing act, and the film is one of the few that manages to pull it off effectively and, more importantly, without sacrificing enjoyment value.
“Going by the Book” isn’t quite flawless, with Ra overplaying his hand somewhat at times, and repeating a few of the gags a little too often, though these are minor complaints and do not prevent the film from being a genuine success. Quietly gripping and thought provoking, whilst packing in plenty of laughs and excitement, the film proves that the cinematic form is perfectly capable of being both entertaining and challenging at the same time.
Hee-chan Ra (director) / Jin Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong … Do-man
Jin-mo Ju … The branch manager
Chang-Seok Ko … The undercover cop at the bank
Han-wi Lee … The head of the special unit
Yeong-eun Lee … Da-hye
Ji-Eun Lim … The TV reporter
Byung-ho Son … Seung-woo