Open City

CJ Entertainment
Lee Sang-gi / South Korea 2008

South Korean director Lee Sang-gi’s first feature film, Open City, seems to have been fairly well received during its theatrical run in Korea; there’s already talk of turning it into a 16-part television drama. It’s premiere outside of Korea was this weekend as a part of the 2008 New York Korean Film Festival, playing to an audience of maybe thirty people. It’s unlikely that many more people than that will ever see this film in American theaters.

That’s not to say that Open City is an unusually bad film– on it’s surface it is a fairly standard crime filck with a few erotic overtones, and there are plenty of terrible crime-pics that become hits; it’s just that the film doesn’t offer much original or engaging that might make it a successful export. There are three things that save the film from drowning completely in its own banality: a handful of stunning shots of both Seoul and Osaka, the chemistry of the primary actors, and the fact that the central crooks are bands of pickpockets.

Kim Myung-Min plays Jo Dae-yung, an up-and-coming police officer in the Seoul Police Department with a particular disdain for pickpockets and people who mistreat women. His underworld counterpart, Baek Jang-mi (Son Ye-Jin), happens to be both female and a pickpocket. When Jo finds Baek being attacked by members of a rival pickpocket gang one night, he comes to her rescue. Though he suspects that she might be involved in the underworld he despises, her womanly wiles get the better of him, and a tense sexual relationship ensues. Both leads wield their good looks and charm as easily and efficiently as they wield the weapons of their respective trades, which makes the film palatable, even when it devolves into ill-advised twists and turns.

The majority of the film focuses on Baek’s assembling and running Seoul’s most ruthless and talented gang of pickpockets and Jo’s attempts to track them down. The pickpocketing scenes give the film some new ground to trend insofar as this particular group of thieves will do anything to avoid being caught and to expand their territory– including slashing the wrists of victims who catch them in the act, taking on the cops in hand-to-hand battles, and fighting with and framing rival gangs. The film is replete with shocking moments featuring razor blades, tattooing tools, nail guns, and even a tennis racket. While some of the fighting sequences feel empty and overly frenetic, the cops and robbers plot is generally entertaining, if a bit hackneyed.

The film falls apart, however, when writer/director Lee tries to overextend it into exploring the psyches of the central players. What results is a mishmash of sepia-toned flashbacks to the 1980s, maternal hangups, and slowly revealed, crisscrossing pasts that try, until the very end of the film, to put everyone and everything into a neat little package for the audience. Instead of being helpful, these offerings make clear the ham-handedness of the storytelling. In the end, Open City is little more than eye-candy, and in aspiring to be more, the film simply becomes more difficult to swallow.

© 2008 Neal Solon. All rights reserved.

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