It’s 1933 and Japan occupies Korea as part of their overall plan to be horrible to everyone in Asia. A Korean resistance commander, Captain Yeom (Lee Jung-jae), is tasked with putting together a team to assassinate Japanese general, Kawaguchi (Park Byung-eun), and Korean business mogul, Kang In-gook (Lee Geung-young), a collaborator who has used the occupation as an opportunity to feather his own nest. Yeom selects three operatives – female sniper, Ahn (Jun Ji-hyun); gunman, Chu “Big Gun” Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong); and demolitions expert, Hwang (Choi Deok-moon) – and packs them off to Seoul to do the deed. However, two major complications are waiting in the wings to foul things up. Firstly, unbeknownst to all and sundry, Ahn is actually Kwang’s daughter, spirited away and raised by the resistance in the aftermath of an earlier assassination attempt, and she has an identical twin sister, Mitsuko, who has grown up in the luxury of the Hwang household. Two, Yeom is himself a spy for the Japanese, and contracts hitman, Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), and his assistant, Buddy (Oh Dai-su) to kill the three assassins before they can strike.
It is a crying shame that Assassination didn’t get a wider release outside of its native South Korea, because it’s simply a great action movie. Don’t flinch at the period setting or the language barrier – director and co-writer (with Lee Ki-cheol), Choi Dong-hoon, lays out his characters and scenario with admirably brisk efficiency. The film is packed with double crosses and revelations, but the characters are cleanly defined and possessed of clear, understandable motives, so the viewer is never left adrift, wondering why all this is happening. Assassination is not a soup to nuts fight sequence, though – it takes its time to lay out its pieces, so that when the guano hits the fan and the bullets start flying, we’re heavily invested in what’s happening. Tonally, the movie turns on a dime; it’s a rollicking period adventure one minute, a dexterous espionage thriller the next, then a high octane actioner, then a tragic melodrama. Fans of Asian cinema are used to this kind of thing, of course, but the tonal shifts in Assassination are drawn from its milieu.
While it never dwells on it, the film never forgets that a lot of its plot and character motives are rooted in the awful atrocities that the Japanese committed when trying to expand their empire. The occasional moment of horrible action or narration can be jarring, but it works to both raise the stakes – we have a pretty good idea of what horrors await our intrepid heroes if they’re caught – and strengthen motivation. Those characters are great, by the way: indelible and engaging, they’re the sort of figures that a less adroit filmmaker would immediately try and jam into a prequel or sequel. Hawaii Pistol and Buddy are a double act for the ages, sort of like a murderous Han and Chewie. There’s more than a touch of the Han Solos to Big Gun, too, whose repeatedly stated self-interest is cover for a heroic heart. Yeom is a great villain: a former hero of the resistance broken by torture and now endlessly conniving to save his own skin while he walks the razor edge between the occupying military and the (rightfully) paranoid underground world of the Korean resistance.
Jun Ji-hyun’s Anh is the heart of the film, though, a war orphan turned remorseless killer who has grown to adulthood during the occupation and known nothing but war and strife. Neither Choi nor Jun over-egg the pudding here. The weight of Anh’s pain and hardship is communicated subtly, but we never doubt its existence. It’s a great performance. Two great performances, actually – Jun also plays Mitsuko, and the contrast between the two does more to define their characters than a thousand pages of dialogue could. The action is spectacular: crisp, clean, and fluid but brutal, with each set piece topping the last. This isn’t the ballet of bullets that John Woo acolytes have come to view as the baseline for Asian action – if anything, Choi is a classicist, never letting style overwhelm clarity. Everything’s in the mix here: knife fights, hand to hand, tense gun duels, and a truck chase sequence that tips the hat to Raiders Of The Lost Ark while doing its own thing, building to a climactic shootout at a wedding that is just superb, with all the plotlines and characters converging in a staggeringly tense face-off that explodes into violence. Assassination is a truly great action thriller.
Assassination plays at The Korean Film Festival In Australia which screens in Sydney (August 10-18), Brisbane (August 23-29), Melbourne (September 1-8), Canberra (September 3-4), Adelaide (September 15-18), and Perth (September 22-25). To buy tickets to Assassination, head to the official website.