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Grumpy auteur and outspoken critic of the Korean film industry Kim Ki Duk puts his money where his mouth is by continuing his recent assault on screens. Here, he follows his own directorial outing “Dream” and protégé Jeon Jae Hong’s excellent “Beautiful”, which he produced, with “Rough Cut”, for which he wrote the screenplay as well as serving as producer. The film was actually directed by Jang Hoon, another of Kim’s young charges, who previously worked as an assistant “The Bow”.
Although it certainly shows the hand of his mentor, with Jang at the helm, the film is a far more commercially friendly prospect, not least since it boasts two major heartthrobs in the lead roles in the form of So Ji Sub, a household name after the television series “I’m Sorry, I Love You”, here making his screen comeback after military service, and Kang Ji Hwan, who made his name with “Host and Guest” and “Hong Gil Dong”. The film certainly proved popular at the box office, probably more so than all of Kim’s own efforts put together, attracting over a million viewers in its first week of release. It also managed to win over the critics, with So Ji Sub and Kang Ji Hwan deservedly sharing the Best New Actor prize at the 29th Blue Dragon Awards.
The film revolves around a cunningly ironic premise. Bad boy actor Soo Ta (Kang Ji Hwan) finds his career threatened after beating up another thespian on the set of his latest gangster drama, sending the media into a frenzy. All the other performers in the industry refuse to work for him, and everything seems lost, until one night in a bar he runs into real life gangster Gang Pae (So Ji Sub) and his entourage. The two men hit it off, albeit in deeply antagonistic fashion, and Gang Pae agrees to star opposite the actor in order to save the film, though on the condition that they perform all of the violent scenes for real. Although this results in some impressive footage, soon both of their lives are changing, and not necessarily for the better.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Rough Cut” is the fact that it consistently avoids taking the predictable route. Despite the premise, it never patronises the viewer through tiresome ‘film vs. reality’ gags, and manages to prevent itself from ever becoming the kind of hollow nonsense it lampoons. A large part of this is down to Kim’s superb script, which is fiercely intelligent and well plotted, providing a perfect balance of gripping plot and sly industry critique. Thankfully, not too much of his well publicised bitterness boils to the surface, and his vision of film production and all its supposed glamour, whilst exposing the artifice and hypocrisy, also shows a genuine understanding of the medium.
As might be expected, there is a fair amount of symbolism, including mirror images, split screen work, and an inevitable injection of religious iconography. Whilst the film does play upon the brutal reality of Gang Pae’s profession compared to the wannabe stylings of Soo Ta, its commentary upon actors and acting is far more complex than a simple castigation. Indeed, the relationship between the two protagonists is a tense and fascinating one, with the balance constantly shifting as they battle not so much with each other as with themselves. As such, the film is arguably more of a character drama than anything else, and a deeply engaging one at that.
Not all of the credit for the film’s success should go to Kim, as Jang’s direction brings the script to life without ever dwelling too much on its more pretentious side. Certainly, he shows a far more measured approach than his mentor, and although the film does have its share of offbeat moments, it generally eschews the obscure in favour of a tight pace and a skilfully worked tautness. Certainly, the film was designed to entertain as well as making viewers think, and he manages to attain this difficult balance without pushing things too far either way. There is a fair amount of action, mostly in the form of fist fights between the male leads, and the film is a bloody affair with some startlingly brutal scenes towards the end. The violence is cleverly interwoven into the narrative and never comes across as having been included for mere shock value. Both Kang Ji Hwan and So Ji Sub turn in excellent and very physical performances, and help to give the film an intense visceral edge.
As a result, “Rough Cut” enjoys the best of both worlds, being intelligent and thought provoking, whilst at the same time entertaining and exciting on a more basic level. The union of Kim’s cynical sensibilities and Jang’s ability to get his hooks into the viewer works wonders, and the film scores highly on all grounds, standing not only as one of the best Korean films of 2008, but surely as an indication of further greatness from both teacher and pupil.
Jang Hoon (director) / Kim Ki-duk (screenplay)
CAST: So Ji-sub, Kang Ji-hwan, Hong Soo-hyeon, Ko Chang-seok, Song Yong-tae, Han Gi-joong, Jo Seok-hyeon, Kang Hong-seok