Friday, March 11, 2011

A Movie is A Movie

The lives of two very intense men intertwine and blur when they begin to switch personas and identities. One is an established, handsome and famous actor, the other a vicious gangster.

The director of Rough Cut Hun Jang is a pupil of Ki-Duk Kim (who in fact penned this) and his masterful influence can be felt throughout the film. A lot of the plot and tone carries with it commercial trappings such as the elements of romance and the tragedy that inevitably follows, but with the talent involved Rough Cut comes into its own and ultimately engages on multiple levels.

The frantic stories of two men cross back and forth; the actor Jang Soo-ta (Ji-Hwan Kang) hides his feelings and meets with his lover in a dodgy van; he admits vainly that the public could never know he was dating ‘her’. Meanwhile the gangster Lee Kang-Pae (a play on the Korean word for gangster and played by Ji-Seob So) has problems with his own gangster life. One fateful evening brings them both face to face, in an immediate conflict of interest. The ego of both men is on display and it is a complicated mix of testosterone, vanity and self-defense. 

Their body language and sharp witted snap-talking reflect this. “You get comfortable and imitate people all your life” he spits to Soo-ta, but behind his venomous words is a sort of jealousy and even a twisted sense of respect. As they stand facing one another even their appearance denotes conflict. Soo-ta is in white while Kang-Pae is adorned in black. From this point Soo-ta’s director Bong (Chang-Seok Ko) is in awe and suggests him to be in the film based on the raw intensity he felt. The stipulation is that the fight scenes in the movie become as real as possible.

When both men perform together neither seems to hold back. Initially Soo-ta retains his sensibility but it is not long before Kang-Pae draws the worst from him and they are both beating each other to a bloody pulp on set as the cameras roll. They both recite off each other as Kang-Pae develops a better sense of the craft and Soo-ta begins to spiral out of control, regardless both men continue to negatively influence the other. They both take method acting to a new level and compete constantly, on the set to determine who the better fighter is and even off set, pursuing a relationship with the female lead. Both men face a complex identity crisis that even leads to a bromance between them. They are rivals in every sense as both have an almost equal level of respect and hatred for each other. Rough Cut also takes a few shots at the Korean film industry and it is this level of cynicism that is injected in the film that makes it stand out over other more commercial shallow productions.

There are some painful truths about acting that Kang-Pae learns such as how he is perceived and the repercussions of his actions are incredibly scrutinized, likewise with the superstar Soo-ta (a play on the Korean word for star!) who constantly fights scandal and public opinion and tries hard to keep his relationships under wraps. There is a clever analogy as visual cues help to explain the similarities between both the acting and the gangster life and by simply comparing the two it is clear a negative light is shone on the profession. Corruption in the movie industry is also touched upon. Director Bong (potentially a play on the real-life director Joon-ho Bong’s name) is very unscrupulous, a coward but will do anything to get his way and breaks the law.

Perhaps the entire production of the faux film in question is given a very adverse look. The gangster element Kang-Pae brings of course spills into the movie production and only adds to the downfall. Art imitates life and the elements of what is bad and good separate as additional plot points are introduced to the film that water down the original intention of Rough Cut, and forces focus away from the character studies. Kang-Pae transitions to a good guy way too fast than what has been suggested (although his performance has been one of conflict and remorse) and the style of the film changes drastically which a shame is considering the investment of both characters and their gradual changes up to this point.

The film concludes with a compelling fight sequence that utilizes all the frustration and stubbornness both men exude as every punch is delivered there is a deep convoluted sense that is fascinating to witness, but by this stage what has come before this pivotal moment has distracted enough to almost let this scene down. The end of the film really ups the ante however, and you can almost feel Ki-Duk winking as everything comes to a head and even the third wall is broken as the credits begin to roll. Ki-Duk Kim was a pivotal element in Rough Cut, like his previous films you can really feel the beauty in the violence and deeply damaged characters, but this does not transition all the way through and as such Rough Cut demotes itself to a great film, rather than a masterpiece it could have been, if not for some grating distracting elements and popcorn plot.

Kwenton Bellette
Kwenton writes for TwitchFilm and NewKoreanCinema. This is a follow up piece to his earlier article on Kim Ki-duk, which you can read here.

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