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As well as helming his own critically acclaimed and frequently controversial films, Korean auteur Kim Ki Duk also runs a side line in writing scripts and acting as producer for younger directors, as seen recently in Jeon Jae Hong’s “Poongsan”, and here again in “Rough Play”. A spiritual follow up of sorts to “Rough Cut”, which he wrote back in 2008 for Jang Hoon (who went on to direct blockbusters “Secret Reunion” and “The Front Line”), the film sees Kim mixing his usual themes with somewhat more of a commercial touch than his own efforts, following a young actor whose life gradually and violently spirals out of control. The film was directed by Shin Yeon Shick, who previously made the offbeat romance “The Fair Love”, and who had a busy year in 2013, also offering up the award nominated drama “The Russian Novel”.
K-pop singer Lee Joon (also in “Ninja Assassin”) headlines as Oh Young, an ambitious young stage actor who has a habit of taking his craft too far, often attacking his actresses on stage. One of his wild performances catches the eye of talent manager Kim Jang Ho (Seo Bum Suk, “The Winter of the Year was Warm”), who convinces him that he has what it takes to be a star. Soon enough, Oh Young is landing prime film roles, and quickly becomes one of the country’s hottest celebrities, changing his life beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the decadence and pressure start to get to him, and he gradually cracks up, the darker aspects of his personality coming to the fore, setting the stage for a dramatic fall from grace.
Like “Poongsan” and “Rough Cut” before it, “Rough Play” is very recognisable as a Kim Ki Duk film, dealing with themes of obsession and identity and taking a satirical stab at the Korean film and entertainment industry. Despite its fairly straightforward rise and fall plot, the script does add in some more art house touches, and is frequently ambiguous to the point of obtuseness, playing with and blurring the line between film and reality, and mixing up its narrative structure with some odd moments that might be past, present or future. The film also sneaks in some amusing and confusing references to Kim’s directorial works, in particular his recent “Moebius”, and as such it’s hard not to approach the film as being based on some of his own experiences in and opinions on the business – for example Oh Young’s onstage assaulting of actresses perhaps reflecting Lee Na Yeong’s near fatal hanging accident while shooting Kim’s “Dream” in 2008, an incident which almost caused him to quit directing.
“Rough Play” is at times quite a dark film as a result, cynical throughout and barely suppressing a bleak glee at the deterioration of its protagonist or its loathing of the world in which it takes place. Though this is at times funny, it does present the film with its chief criticism, the fact that Oh Young is essentially an unlikeable character, prone to excess and despicable behaviour. While audiences may feel vaguely sorry for him as his life goes off the rails, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being terribly sympathetic to his plight, and the film does have a cold, detached air that limits emotional involvement. This is compounded by the rest of the cast all playing roles of varying degrees of ruthlessness, sleaze or egotistical arrogance, leaving the viewer without anyone to really root for or identify with.
To be fair, this is part of the film’s point, and from the start neither Kim nor Shin Yeon Shick pretend to be offering false charm or happy endings – certainly, Kim aficionados will by now be more than used to this kind of approach from him as writer or director. Shin makes the most of the tone and setup, throwing in plenty of scenes of violence, and graphic sex and nudity, and this underlines the corruption and immorality. The film benefits from some handsome visuals that effectively and attractively mix glamour and gritty squalor, and Shin’s direction is pleasingly focused, keeping the pace going even during the more abstract and ponderous sequences.
“Rough Play” is very enjoyable as a result, and though perhaps not cutting and cleverly vicious enough for more fervent Kim Ki Duk fans, while at the same time a little too esoteric for the average movie goer, it generally finds a happy medium between the two extremes. As a hard-edged and mean spirited deconstruction of celebrity and human weakness, it has plenty of entertainment to offer, and there’s every suggestion that Shin Yeon Shick is a talented director with a bright future in the industry.
Yeon-Shick Shin (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Joon Lee … Oh Young
Yeong-hie Seo … Oh Yeon-Hee
Dong-kun Yang … Kang Bin
Dong-seok Ma … Gang boss