Assassination, the Korean movie from 2015, is now available on Netflix in Canada. With my course load lighter (never trying two courses at the same time while I’m working), I have a bit of time on weekends to spend with my family, so my wife and I took the opportunity to watch it.
I’m going to get my major problem with the movie out of the way: it’s needlessly convoluted in order to pack in a bunch of historical figures from the Korean opposition to the Japanese occupation. The plot is way more complex than needed, and a bunch of characters have been jammed in – especially at the beginning of the film and as part of the film’s bookends. The primary audience are Koreans who know these historical figures, so I can understand to some degree the impetus to put them in, but for foreign audiences it adds a needless level of complexity.
But you know what? I don’t care. This movie has some really strong, flamboyant characters, a tough female protagonist – better than anything I’ve seen in a Korean movie until now – and some fantastic action set-pieces. This is not a great movie – see needlessly complex above – but I found the action really great. I think this is my favourite period Korean actioner after the Good, the Bad, the Weird. It’s very different than movies like the Man from Nowhere or straight up noir like the Yellow Sea, but it’s got that same sense of adventure that the Good, the Bad, the Weird did so well.
Ha Jung-woo, who was the lead in both the Yellow Sea and Kundo: Age of the Rampant, as well as the Berlin File and Nameless Gangster, is one of the lead characters in Assassination. He’s always solid, and he does a great job here of delivering conflicted yet swashbuckling. Yes, I’m going with swashbuckling. He doesn’t have a sword, but the kind of kinetic action here and the Good, the Bad, the Weird I think fits that term, if not through the historical setting.
Jun Ji-hyun/Gianna Jun plays the protagonist, a female sniper from Korean partisan forces fighting in Manchuria. Unlike many portrayals of female action heroes, she does not need the male characters to save her, and she is presented as brave, competent and resourceful. I hope we see more characters like this in Korean action cinema.
I’d also like to throw in a big thumb’s up for Oh Dal-su who I didn’t even recognize as “Old Man,” one of a pair of ne’er do wells. He wasn’t quite Song Kang-ho as the Weird in the Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he delivered a great performance, and he’s the first I think of when I use the term flamboyant – with his fantastic hair, great moustache, and machine-gun diplomacy.
Now while I love the adventure-vibe of much of the action, the plot itself is quite serious and takes on some really deep themes that would resonant with the Korean audience. Koreans have not forgiven or forgotten Japan’s heinous colonial rule of the peninsula, probably because in general, the Japanese have yet to admit (yes, there have been apologies, but when one part of the government apologizes while the rest is telling the populace that it did Korea a favour by grinding it down, you have to expect your apologies might not be taken seriously).
This is much weightier than the setting of Japanese colonial Manchuria, because this depicts the Japanese occupation of Korea. Sure, Koreans probably sympathize with the Chinese who suffered under Japan, but the occupation of Manchuria is academic to Koreans, while the occupation of Korea remains an open wound on the national psyche. Manchuria could be used as an America West stand-in because both are equally exotic to Koreans.
All this to say that the film does have some lighter moments, with some very kinetic action, but it does not have the Good, the Bad, the Weird‘s romantic tone. This is a deadly serious movie, but I will admit I wished it had gone the route of that kimchi western, because these characters could have been awesome in something lighter.
I give Assassination 4.5 cracked lens out of 5. I recommend this movie for its action and its characters. The weighty topic won’t feel so heavy to Western audiences, but the loading in of historical personages and the framing sequences will probably also fall flat.