Wild Card (2003) Movie Review

It behooves me not to take everything I see in movies at face value, but if police work in South Korea is anything remotely similar to what’s portrayed in their cop movies, then I’m afraid your average American city would swallow up a Korean cop in a matter of seconds. “Wild Card” is a South Korean police drama that continues the theme of law enforcement as just another variant on societal hierarchy, similar to schooling, work, and family.

Having seen my share of Korean cop films, I really didn’t expect that much from “Wild Card”. The most I could hope for is a leading man that I can empathize with, and a case that is relatively interesting. The trick, then, is to match your hero with an intriguing villain, such as a criminal mastermind in “Nowhere to Hide” or an obsessive serial killer in “Public Enemy”. With “Wild Card” we have four young punks with a penchant for violence, murder, and anything else that strikes their fancy. The foursome’s nonchalant crime spree turns the precinct of Je-su (Dong-kun Yang) and Yeong-dal (Jin-yeong Jeong) upside down, and political pressure builds for the department to bring in the hoods.

Of course calling what the detectives in “Wild Card” do as a race against time would be gross over exaggeration. As with “Hide” and “Enemy”, the blas’ attitude displayed by the hoods as they mug, kill, and rape their way to the top of the police hit list also goes for the cops themselves. By now I’ve seen enough Korean cop movies to realize that, like their American counterparts, the Korean cop genre has its own conventions. They are: the establishment and furtherance of social hierarchy even when it comes to cops and criminals; the lack of firearms unless absolutely necessary; and cop as bully, physically abusing everything in sight because, frankly speaking, society not only allows him to, but expects him to. You see, shooting a crook is bad, but smashing his head in with a baseball bat — well, that’s a gray area.

The wild card of the title can be interpreted as two groups of people. One is young Detective Je-su, who sees no real reason to respect his elders especially when one of them is a crook and a coward; also, he rails against a police system that gives cops guns only as something to “throw at the criminals”. The other group is the four killers, who unlike their established counterparts, see no reason to kowtow to the cops and take abuse with a smile; like Je-su, they are not part of “the norm”, and thus are deviants in a society that seeks to put stringent protocols on everything, including criminality. But it’s interesting to note that by movie’s end both groups have absconded to the Establishment Rules — Je-su by embracing the rules, and the hoods by, inevitably, getting caught as a result of the rules.

If you know what to expect from “Wild Card” than the film is standard stuff. It’s nearly two hours long, and only half of that running time is spent on the investigation. The long running time also cuts down on decent pacing, and as a result the film seems to meander. Of course the two hours help to give background information on the cops, including Je-su’s awkward courtship of Chae-young Han, an attractive woman who he accosts every night outside her gym in a perverted sense of foreplay. The film’s biggest mistake is probably not paying enough attention to lead Dong-kum Yang, who shares most of his screentime with Jin-yeong Jeong. And yes, more of Chae-young Han would help.

“Wild Card” doesn’t break conventions at all. Actually, it’s rather interesting how easily the film tows the genre cliché and doesn’t really desire to be different. For fans of the TV show “C.S.I.”, “Wild Card” will seem lazy and ineffectual. For example, the cops don’t even break the case, but rather it’s the past association of one of the foursome that does them in. Without that little coincidence, one could easily imagine these cops running around Seoul for decades trying to catch the perps. Of course we’re not talking about four criminal masterminds here. These are just four punks with too much time on their hands and lacking the consciousness to care about bashing an old woman’s head in with a steel ball.

“Wild Card” isn’t bad; it’s just an average film, with average performances by all involved. The theme of cops and cop-related shootings is touched upon, bringing up the stringent rules that ties cops hands. But this seems a rather moot point, especially when we see cops beating suspects with baseball bats without so much as a concern about that thing called “excessive force”. Maybe the Koreans have it right. After all, if you can whack a suspect around with a baseball bat, why bother with guns?

Yu-jin Kim (director) / Man-hui Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Dong-kun Yang …. Bang Je-su
Jin-yeong Jeong …. Oh Yeong-dal
Chae-young Han …. Kang, Na-na

Buy Wild Card on DVD