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“Mr. Socrates” is the first film proper from Choi Jin Won, whose only previous credit of note was co-directing “Memento Mori” (the sequel to influential teen horror “Whispering Corridors”), and is another in the long line of hip, stylised crime dramas which have been pouring out of Korea over the last few years. Sadly, this in itself may be enough to put off many viewers, as there is no denying the fact that the film’s central premise treads familiar ground. However, as with “A Bittersweet Life”, lurking beneath the surface are a surprising amount of depth and a genuinely interesting central protagonist. Of course, it helps that the film has a slyly ironic sense of humour, and countless scenes of people being beaten to a pulp with steel baseball bats, all of which contribute to what is a highly entertaining film which deserves to stand out from the crowd of similar efforts.
The plot follows Dong Hyuk (Kim Rae Won, in a departure from his last role in the romantic comedy “My Little Bride”) a common street thug who is clearly going nowhere with his life. One night, he is kidnapped by a group of gangsters who keep him prisoner in an abandoned school. Here, he is put through a brutal regime of lessons and training with one purpose in mind — to prepare him for the police qualification exams. Probably as a result of having seen too many films, the gangsters have the brilliant idea of turning Dong Hyuk into a tame homicide detective to help use the law for their own benefits. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite to plan, as Dong Hyuk takes to his job like a fish to water, mainly for the simple reason that he sees being a policeman as a great excuse for getting into fights with impunity.
Although the story is immediately reminiscent of “Infernal Affairs” and “Oldboy”, the film owes far more to “Public Enemy” in that it takes a bleak and humorous look at modern notions of justice and the law. The film does this in a reasonable philosophical manner, portraying the police force and the gangsters as being similar, and depicting both as groups who use the law only when it suits them. Corruption is seen at every turn, with a complete lack of honest or traditionally ‘good’ characters. This moral void makes for interesting viewing, and the constant cynicism of the narrative, with the characters furthering their schemes only through luck or violence, is frequently amusing.
The film as a whole is very funny, with the character of Dong Hyuk in particular providing a good number of laughs. He is an essentially symbolic figure, being a directionless, almost idiotic thug who is forced to learn and become a better person on the pain of constant beatings and threats on his life. The film’s title comes into play as, once working as a policeman, he starts quoting philosophy to some of the people he thrashes, clearly without any understanding of what he is saying. Dong Hyuk does develop and grow through the film, and as such the viewer comes to care about his fate, mainly due to the fact that although he is undoubtedly vicious, he has an almost admirable single-mindedness that sets him apart from the rest of the scum.
“Mr. Socrates” is fast moving, with plenty of action, most of it violent, though thankfully without any needless set pieces or the elaborately staged shoot outs which tend to find their way into such films. This lends the proceedings a gritty, if not entirely believable air and makes the director’s musings on justice easier to swallow. There are flaws, however, mainly in the unavoidable sense of familiarity and the fact that there is little here that has not been seen before, especially in the anti-climatic ending which serves only to tie together the various plot strands in a too-hurried manner. However, the film is exciting, highly entertaining, drawing strength from its irreverent attitude, its likeable characters, and its desire to delve deeper into societal themes of right and wrong.
Jin-won Choi (director)
CAST: Shin-il Kang
Rae-won Kim….Ku Dong-hyeok