The popularity of the melodramatic gangster film continues unabated in Korean cinema with “Sunflower”, the latest effort from director Kang Seok Beom, previously responsible for the comedy “Mr. Handy”. The main appeal of “Sunflower” is undoubtedly the star presence of popular actor Kim Rae Won, a key figure in the recent Korean wave who featured in the likes of “My Little Bride” and several hit television series.
The plot begins with gangster Tae Sik (Kim, who also played a criminal in the excellent “Mr Socrates”) recently released from prison, and heading back to his hometown to live in a small restaurant with an adopted mother who has taken him under her wing. Desperate to leave his past behind, he takes a job in a local garage and tries his best to live quietly and away from the attention of the local gangs, most of whom still live in fear of his reputation for brutality. Unfortunately, his best efforts are threatened by the actions of a particularly unpleasant local politician who wants to knock the restaurant down to make way for his new shopping mall. Sure enough, Tae Sik soon finds himself battling against the demons of his past in a very real and painful fashion as he struggles to avoid returning to his previous life of violence.
Since the film revolves almost entirely around his character, it is fortunate that Tae Sik is a fully fleshed out and interesting figure, particularly during the early stages when, having no real prior frame of reference to his past behaviour, it comes as a shock to the viewer to see his extensive tattooing. Although it is initially difficult to associate such a meek and unassuming man with the murderous violence of which he has apparently been capable, Kim’s multilayered performance does a good job of providing subtle hints of his internal turmoil and the viciousness lurking beneath his timid exterior. This provides the film with a heartfelt emotional core, something which helps to overcome the inherent predictability of the plot, with the final showdown having been clearly marked from the opening scene.
The rest of the supporting characters are all reasonably well drawn, with Tae Sik’s adoptive family providing solid enough ground for the inevitable melodrama which pours in during the final act, during which director Kang does treat them with some surprising ruthlessness. The only weak link comes in the form of Kim Byeong Ok’s villain, who is needlessly evil throughout, constantly pushing the protagonist as if keen to see him explode, even after things seem to be going his way. This does provide some amusement during the latter stages, when he at least has the decency to confess in a rare moment of insight that, “I should have known this would happen.”
Thematically, the film acts like a checklist of the usual gangster film motifs, covering corruption, betrayal and the adverse affects of violence, though it does at least steer away from any glamorisation of the criminal life, with most of the characters being depicted as a cowardly lot. As the true nature of Tae Sik’s relationship with his surrogate mother is revealed, the film does explore some potentially more interesting territory. Unfortunately this emerges a little too late in the proceedings to add more than a sprinkling of psychological intrigue.
To be fair, “Sunflower” does tackle some slightly different ground in comparison to other efforts with virtually identical plots, with Tae Sik’s journey being one of repentance rather than redemption. The recurring notebook motif works quite well in this regard, underlining his character’s determination to make amends and fit in with decent society, something which of course is lent a tragic air given that the viewer is constantly aware that his hopes are all too likely to be dashed.
Kang’s direction is solid, if unremarkable, though he does manage to give the film a generally polished look, and keeps things moving along at a reasonable pace, throwing in the odd burst of violence whenever things start to flag. His past experience as a director of comedy films shows through in places, adding a welcome touch of humour to the funny scenes which play upon Sik’s embarrassment at his tattoos and the fact that his fellow gangsters are clearly terrified of him, and seem to expect him to attack them at any moment.
This somewhat light-hearted approach to the subject matter does win “Sunflower” a few points for vague originality, though it is the film’s success as a genuinely believable and intimate character based drama which arguably provides its real strength. As such, whilst it is easy enough to berate the film for its glaring lack of originality and ambition, Kang certainly achieves his modest aims in producing a moving, engrossing and painfully human story which should more than satisfy fans of the form.
Seok-beom Kang (director) / Seok-beom Kang, Min-ho Song (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-su Han, In-jae Heo, Eun-pyo Jeong, Dae-han Ji, Seok-beom Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Hae-suk Kim, Jeong-tae Kim
Rae-won Kim … Tae-shik
Eun-hye Park … Cameo