Body swapping has always been a popular cinematic theme, with the idea of being someone else offering the chance for escapist wish fulfilment and fantastic thrills. While “The Game” from Korean director Yun In Ho (Responsible for “When I Turned Nine” and “Mayonnaise”, and who also worked on Hollywood films such as “Apollo 13” and “French Kiss”) uses this basic premise, like John Woo’s “Face Off”, it takes things in a darker and more sinister direction. Based upon a Japanese manga called “Change”, the film certainly proved popular with domestic audiences, managing an impressive 1.5 million admissions during the 2008 Lunar New Year holiday.
The drama starts as street artist Hee Do (cult favourite actor Shin Ha Kyun, also in “No Mercy For the Rude”, “Save the Green Planet” and “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance”) receives a mysterious phonecall and a visit from a rich older woman called Hye Rin (Lee Hye Young, “No Blood No Tears”). Agreeing to her request to meet her ailing husband, he follows her to a fabulous mansion, where he is offered a bizarre bet with elderly billionaire Kang Noh Sik (Byun Hee Bong, also in “The Host”) – if he wins, he takes home a fortune, though if he loses, he gives up his body. Desperate to pay off his girlfriend’s debts, he takes the wager, only to lose and to wake up to find that his brain has been transplanted into the old man’s dying form. While Noh Sik eagerly grabs his second chance at youth, reclaiming control of his company, romancing Hee Do’s unsuspecting woman and generally living it up, the poor young man tries to find a way to reclaim his body before time runs out.
Although “The Game” may sound like a high concept cat and mouse thriller, it is actually more of a character drama than might have been expected, with director Yun choosing to focus mainly on the human elements of the story. Indeed, he certainly takes his time, exploring in depth the moral and philosophical implications of the situation, though thankfully not in a heavy-handed manner. The film splits its time between the two men, following them as they face the various challenges and complications of their new bodies, and the different ways in which they react makes for interesting viewing.
Yun’s humanistic approach also gives the basically daft story not only a solid emotional core, but also a certain sense of believability, with the well-developed characters having sympathetic motivations and goals. Wisely, although Noh Sik is clearly labelled as the bad guy, he is never allowed to degenerate into an overt villain as such, and his journey is arguably every bit as interesting as that of Hee Do, with both of them learning plenty of life lessons along the way. Crucially, both of the lead actors deliver marvellous performances in their dual roles, making the film far more convincing than it might otherwise have been. This is not to say that the film doesn’t pack in its fair share of twists and turns, and although it is pretty clear from the start where it is going Yun manages to keep the viewer gripped with a number of reasonably clever plot developments and a nice line in playful humour. This serves well, not only to notch up the tension, but to help distract the viewer from the many gaping holes in the plot and from the fact that the film is rather over-stretched and drawn out.
Certainly, the middle section could have done with some trimming, being mainly comprised of characters taking far too long to anything and with the scenes of Noh Sik trying to woo Hee Do’s silly damsel in distress girlfriend lacking any real weight. The third act is by far the most exciting, when Hee Do finally decides to take action, and the film effectively shifts up a gear for a taut finale. Even then, Yun sticks to his guns, never allowing things to stray too far into thriller territory, and although he almost drops the ball with a pointless tacked on surprise revelation, the film’s conclusion is satisfying from both a narrative and thematic point of view.
This caps the film off nicely, and “The Game” stands as a solid piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Although the character driven approach doesn’t quite deliver the excitement promised by its wacky premise, it benefits from being surprisingly substantial, and the well-told story and interesting protagonists are more than enough to keep the viewer hooked through to the end.
Yoon In-ho (director) / Kim Mi-ra (screenplay)
CAST: Sin Ha-gyoon … Min Hee-do
Byeon Hee-bong … Kang No-sik
Lee Hye-yeong … Lee Hye-rin
Son Hyeon-joo … Min Tae-seok
Eun-seong … Joo Eun-ah
Kim Hyeok I … Secretary Mr. Ahn
Choo Sang-rok … Dr. Kim