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Popular Korean actor Gong Yoo is framed and goes on the run in “The Suspect”, a fast-paced blockbuster thriller directed by Won Sin Yeon, whose last outing was the hit Kim Yoon Jin kidnap drama “Seven Days” back in 2007. The all-action film is a bit of a change for Gong, most recently in the controversial “Silenced” and best known for his roles in romantic comedies like “My Tutor Friend” and television series such as “Coffee Prince”, and takes on the currently popular theme of North Korean spies hiding out in the south and getting caught up in murderous conspiracies. The film also stars Park Hee Soon (“The Client”) as the man charged with catching him, with a supporting cast that includes Jo Sung Ha (“Commitment”), Kim Sung Kyun (“Hwayi: A Monster Boy”), Jo Jae Yoon (“Miracle in Cell No. 7”) and actress Yoo Da In (“Re-encounter”).
Gong plays Ji Dong Cheol, a former top North Korean operative who now lives in hiding in the south as a defector after being betrayed by his own government. His quiet life is thrown into chaos after he’s framed for the murder of his boss and fellow defector, and is forced to go on the run, pursued by General Min Se Hoon (Park Hee Soon), who has a personal grudge against Dong Cheol. Aided by a feisty documentary maker (Yoo Da In), Gong tries to get to the bottom of the assassination, linked to a mysterious formula which may or may not be for a new and deadly chemical weapon. With Se Hoon and the director of national intelligence (Jo Sung Ha) on his trail, things get personal for Gong when it becomes clear that the conspiracy also involves the killing of his wife and child years back.
To say that “The Suspect” was influenced by the “Bourne” films would be an understatement, director Won Sin Yeon clearly having studied every shot in Paul Greengrass’ shaky-cam playbook, with a dash of “Mission Impossible” tossed in for good measure. Thankfully, though the film is undeniably derivative, Won is a talented helmer and manages to distil the Hollywood thriller formula into something intense and exciting. Indeed, it’s hard to remember a film that was quite so action packed, the fast-moving plot fairly sprinting from set piece to set piece and Won throwing in a non-stop procession of chases, shoot-outs, fights and explosions. It’s all tightly handled, sharply edited and well-choreographed, with some fantastic stunts (most of which were apparently performed by Gong Yoo himself, making up for his lack of dialogue with a physical and rugged turn) and flashes of hard-edged brutality helping to make for some of the most spectacular and impressive sequences in recent Korean genre cinema.
Credit is also due to scripter Lim Sang Yoon, who also wrote and directed assassination thriller “A Company Man” and who here does a solid job of weaving an engaging conspiracy plot – the North Korea theme, somewhat overdone in the last few years, has more depth than usual, the final revelations making for an interesting twist. Heavy on betrayals, politics and scheming, the film does recall Ryoo Seung Wan’s “The Berlin File”, with similar rainy grey palette and cynical take on the Korean authorities, though it’s in general more concerned with its action than its narrative.
Clocking in at about two hours and fifteen minutes, “The Suspect” is undeniably a bit overstuffed, markedly so during the inevitable sentimental conclusion, though for the most part Kim and Lim successfully hold the interest despite the general lack of originality.
“The Suspect” certainly went down well with local audiences, pulling in over 4 million admissions at the box office, and its successful reworking of Hollywood genre techniques should ensure a similarly appreciative audience overseas. Having tackled everything from psychotic bullies in “A Bloody Aria” to a haunted thatch in “The Wig”, Won Sin Yeon now proves himself an adept blockbuster director, and gives the film the genuine sense of breathless excitement missing from so many of its peers.
Shin-yeon Won (director) / Lim Sang-yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Yoo Gong … Ji Dong-cheol
Seong-ha Jo … Kim Seok-ho
Seong-gyoon Kim … Ri Gwang-jo
Hee-soon Park … Min Se-hoon
Da-in Yoo … Choi Kyeong-hee