An explosion at a drug manufacturing laboratory takes out an entire level of a drug syndicate’s management. In the wreckage, the police find a low-level syndicate member still alive. Arrested and detained by a special investigation team, he agrees to help them track down what remains of the syndicate’s leadership, particularly its anonymous leader “Mr Lee” – but can he be trusted?
If this all sounds a little familiar, it may be because you have seen Johnnie To’s 2013 Chinese film Drug War, of which Lee Hae-Young’s Believer is a South Korean remake. While the characters are all subtly re-imagined and the beat-by-beat narrative changed, at the end of the day the two films tell almost exactly the same story. As far as remakes go, it’s a smart one: Lee takes most of the elements from Drug War that worked best but finds room to localise and remix To’s work in the remaining scenes.
Cho Jin-woong plays Jo Won-ho, a tightly wound and vengeful narcotics detective. He has spent years on the trail of the mysterious Mr Lee, and when one of his best snitches is brutally murdered just to send him a message, he steps wildly out of control in a chase to track the elusive kingpin down. Cho plays the role with a brilliant intensity and more than a little brutality; he treads a thin line between being a hero the audience can support and an out-of-line abusive cop who deserves to be arrested himself.
When a drug laboratory is destroyed and a senior lieutenant to Mr Lee assassinated in front of him, Cho’s only hope is Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol): a junior member of the syndicate who agrees to help Cho’s squad when the laboratory explosion murders his mother and almost kills his dog. Ryu is stunning in the role. He finds an ambivalent path that makes it difficult for the audience to ever really trust Rak. He may be helping Cho. He may be protecting Lee. He may even be helping himself. The film does a remarkable job of keeping that ambiguity active and balanced through much of its two-hour running time.
The path to Mr Lee takes in a series of wildly inventive set pieces, all sourced and adapted from Johnnie To’s original film. To get a foot into the syndicate’s operations, Cho impersonates one of its lieutenants to make a deal with a dangerously unhinged Chinese client named Ha-Rim (Kim Joo-hyuk). Immediately afterwards he rushes to another hotel suite to make the same deal from the other side: masquerading as Ha-Rim to fool Mr Lee’s real lieutenant. The sequence boasts a bravura performance by Kim Joo-hyuk, who turns Ha-Rim into someone both amusing and repellent in equal measure. This was Kim’s final performance – he tragically died in a car accident last year before Believer had finished shooting – and he made it a hugely memorable one.
For fans of Drug War intrigued to see how a Korean remake shapes up, Believer is an engaging and satisfying take on strong material. For viewers that missed the story the first time around, Believer is a beautifully shot and paced action thriller. It boasts strong performances, inventive settings and characters, and bold, bloody storytelling. If you like Korean cinema, you’re going to love this one.