Capital punishment is a subject of great moral complexity and one which lends itself to powerful cinematic debate, asking audiences whether or not it is ever right to take a life, no matter what the circumstances. This is certainly true in Korea, a country which despite still having a capital punishment system in effect, has not had an actual execution since 1997. Exploring this situation is first time director Choi Jin Ho, whose debut feature “The Executioner” revolves around the premise of the government deciding to take a tougher line on crime by putting three convicted killers to death.
As is often the case with prison dramas, the film begins with a new rookie joining the staff, in this case the fresh faced Jae Kyung (Yoon Kye Sang, “Beastie Boys”). The initially enthusiastic young man is soon taught the harsh realities of the job by the tough and jaded veteran guard Jong Ho (Cho Jae Hyun, also in Kim Ki Duk’s “Bad Guy” and “Address Unknown”), a man who believes in discipline and punishment rather than kindly rehabilitation, treating the prisoners with contempt and violence. The two men, along with their colleagues are shocked when it is announced that three of their charges are to be executed, with Jae Kyung and Jong Ho amongst those selected for the duty.
Where “The Executioner” differs from other Korean death row dramas such as “Maundy Thursday”, “Breath”, and “My Father” is in that it focuses mainly on the experiences of the guards rather than the prisoners themselves, exploring how having to take a man’s life affects them. The film is also somewhat unusual in that it doesn’t take as heavy handed an approach as might have been expected, especially during the early stages, which contain a fair amount of humour. This works well, as Choi spends the first half of the film getting to know his characters, primarily Jae Kyung and Jong Ho, both of whom are interesting and sympathetic figures, being far more than simple ciphers for the two sides of the debate. The relationship between the two is engaging, as the two men help each other both on and off the job, and by devoting time to their personal lives Choi further humanises them. This also allows the film to consider issues of morality and of life and death in a wider context by taking on themes such as abortion, and by charting how the impending executions change the personalities of the guards in their daily lives.
The script is pleasingly even handed in tackling its highly complex and emotive subject matter, and although it does get rather needlessly melodramatic during its final scenes, it is at least never preachy. Just as the various guards are depicted as flawed, though believable human beings, the criminals are not demonised, though without the viewer ever being allowed to forget that they are brutal murderers. The film does work better as an issue driven film than an emotional one, and Choi scores extra points for not offering up any easy answers, leaving the question of right and wrong decidedly unanswered.
On a more conventional level, the film also works very well as a thriller of sorts, with Choi playing the premise for drama and suspense. The inevitability of the coming events, and the question of how they will ultimately affect the protagonists does make for a fair amount of tension, and this helps to ensure that the proceedings are gripping and never too ponderous. The film does get quite violent and bloody in places, and this helps to underlines the grim realities of prison life, and provides reminders of the acts which have landed the men on death row. Choi’s direction is for the most part naturalistic and unobtrusive, and with the film clocking in at just over an hour and a half, it is efficient and never wallows too much, unlike most other similarly themed efforts.
This helps to keep the viewer gripped, and means that “The Executioner” stays focused on its themes and points rather than drifting off into filler material simply for the sake of padding things out. Offering a good mix of character drama, suspense and moral questions, it stands as one of the more interesting films on the subject of the death penalty, and one which is arguably more searching and indeed affecting than its sappier peers.
Choi Jin-ho (director) / Kim Yeong-ok-I (screenplay)
CAST: Jo Jae-hyeon, Yoon Kye-sang, Park In-hwan, Cha Soo-yeon, Jo Seong-ha, Kim Jae-geon