(Movie Review by James D. Bass) The genre of Noir in filmmaking is receiving a resurgence of popularity due primarily to the fascination with most audiences towards it’s capacity to promote ambiguity of social and moral values within the lives of the characters and stories. “Undoing” from Indican Pictures presents a stylish version of “Neo Noir” by combining some unique twists with very homogenized elements that results in something that is simultaneously appealing and disappointing. A result that is almost iconic of the characters that make up a classic narrative meant to blur the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, light and dark.
And while most entertainment is expected to stir some strong emotional response, convey a message, or engage viewers in a satisfying tale… Chris Chan Lee’s independent production leaves a sense of wonder that borders on bewildering. And delivering as many questions as answers. After viewing the 90 minute widescreen edition of the DVD, when attempting to categorize the movie as good or bad… the only conclusion is the same if posed for every character and event within the film. After all… it’s Noir.
Sam (expertly portrayed by Sung Kang) has returned to Los Angeles from self imposed exile to Korea after witnessing the murder of his friend Joon (Leonardo Nam). As would be expected in the city of fallen angels, Sam’s life of crime in Koreatown was violently disrupted when Joon, the son of a minister decides to mastermind his own shady drug deal. Poorly planned and executed, and incorporating an array of well intentioned but highly flawed accomplices (even a dirty cop) the simple operation resulted in a complicated disaster that sent Sam away from everything and everyone that he cared about.
There is no explanation of timing for Sam’s return apart from a desire to set things right and as the cover of the disc offers that “He’s taking back what was once his”. Sam engages the help of Don (Tom Bower) his one-time mentor, however the movie never explains in what trade Don provided an education. The only connection appears to be that Sam’s father and Don were once associated, either as friends or business partners. Every decision is muddied with rights done for the wrong reasons, and evils committed with good intentions. All of it with as little motive, and ultimately as little plot as possible, giving the whole production as much purpose as an independent film usually possesses budget. The most intense reaction any viewer can expect to involuntarily emit is facial squints and head tilts as the storyline plods on like a Battan Death March towards an unknown fate.
A true Noir treatment would not be complete without tossing love and sex into the mix, and Sam’s redemption is further complicated by his desire to restore the lost relationship with Vera (Kelly Hu). And almost befitting of a melodrama, the questionable hero and heroine are pursued by a tortured villain, a hired hitman named Leon (Russell Wong), who seems to be battling gangsters in order to tame his own inner demons. Even Vera, in the year of Sam’s disappearance seems to have become embroiled in dubious social, financial, and interpersonal triangles that are never fully explored or explained. The story becomes a web of puppet strings that appear to be controlled as much by unseen hands as the puppets themselves.
The actors undertake their roles with a stirring amount of conviction, providing believable portrayals even without the presence of a wholly motivational story. “Undoing” visually achieves some surprisingly satisfying moments supported by a moderately well crafted soundtrack that hints at, but never coalesces into a Korean inspired motif. Again, it stimulates more of a curiosity than climax. And while the movie ends, the questions seem to continue without resolution. Each interrogatory word brings on further suspicions. Any amateur detective may be able to answer “When” and “Where”, but get more and more elusive as they attempt to find out “What” and “Who”. The biggest unsolved mystery is determining “Why”.
Chris Chan Lee (director) / Chris Chan Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Sung Kang … Samuel
Kelly Hu … Vera
Tom Bower … Don
Russell Wong … Leon
José Zúñiga … Randall
Leonardo Nam … Joon
Mary Mara … Kasawa
Julia Ling … Linda