With his directorial debut, “The Outlaws,” Kang Yoon-sung showed he was capable of creating quality action and characters, although the storytelling was a bit formulaic and cliched.
“Long Live the King,” an upcoming comedy/drama about a reformed gangster, shows the director’s strengths and weaknesses with an interesting protagonist, a slightly overdone but promising premise and humor -- but also a weak narrative and clumsy storytelling.
The film stars Kim Rae-won as mob boss Jang Se-chul in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, who is hired by a conglomerate to kick out the merchants protesting a skyscraper and shopping mall that would destroy their livelihoods. During the protest, he encounters lawyer Gang So-hyeon -- Won Jin-ah -- who tells him off and urges him to become a “good person.”
Fulfilling his end of the bargain he made with Gang, Jang saves a person from a bus accident and is unwittingly pushed into running for a seat in the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, incumbent Mokpo Rep. Choi Man-soo and Jang’s rival gangster Jo Gwang-chun -- played by Choi Gwi-hwa and Jin Seon-kyum, respectively -- plot to bring Jang down by digging into his past.
It seemed clear from the start where the director was going with this -- a comedy with a pinch of satire about modern society and politics, showing that the true nature of a man lies in his heart, not how he appears on the outside. The problem is that it was all too clunky.
Jang’s decision to change his life seemed to appear out of nowhere. Gang’s criticism and character are supposed to be poignant enough to spark a life-altering decision, which I unfortunately could not see. Her character was one-dimensional and boring, and her interaction with Jang did nothing to motivate the changes in Jang’s character.
While there was no notable weak link in the cast, the characters were hit and miss. Joo Min-mo is a veteran actor who has made an impression in many supporting roles, but his presence is wasted here.
As the main man, however, Kim pulls off one of his finest works. Stepping out of his comfort zone, Kim persuasively embodies the mannerisms and personality of a gangster looking to do the right thing. It is his acting that holds up the weak structure of the first hour.
The villainous Jo and Choi did not have much depth, but were nevertheless entertaining because these veteran actors were perfectly cast. With his slimy/menacing demeanor, Choi is a guy you love to hate while Jin brings a certain charm to any character he plays -- much like Ma Dong-seok, who makes a surprise cameo here and steals the scene.
But neither of them has the presence of Yoon Kye-sang in “The Outlaws,” and while Kim performs admirably, he lacks the natural charisma of Ma. Of course, these are different films, but the problem with “Long Live the King” is that it shares some of the weaknesses of “The Outlaws,” but none of its strengths. Unlike Kang’s previous film, it’s unlikely that any of the lines in this one will ever be deemed quote-worthy.
The story becomes increasingly predictable as it proceeds toward the climax. Jang’s character is elevated to saintlike perfection as the film seems hell-bent on making sure that the audience understands him. And the message is obvious and redundant.
Still, “Long Live the King” is not a bad film. It has some laugh-out-loud moments, and the three main characters -- Jang, Choi and Jo -- work well with each other and create some fun moments. It just does not live up to its potential, becoming just another cookie-cutter comedy film that is just OK.
Perhaps the best way to describe this movie would be to call it a poor man’s “Extreme Job,” a smash-hit comedy that became the second-most-watched film in Korean box office history. Both have likable characters, appealing subject matter and good humor -- but also predictable plots and lazy writing. “Long Live the King” is a little less funny, has fewer great moments and leaves less of an impression on viewers.
“Long Live the King” opens in theaters June 19.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com