aka 암살 aka Amsal
Written by Choi Dong-hoon and Lee Ki-cheol
Directed by Choi Dong-hoon
Despite the years of ups and downs, South Korea cinema continues to deliver great films, even if it isn’t at the breakneck pace that it once had. And deliver Assassination does, giving us a great wartime espionage tale with a core group of interesting players to follow. Characters battle and scheme, motivated by their honor, for some the honor of appearing strong and powerful more alluring than the actuality.
Assassination wins not because of the action sequences of the story of a ragtag group of unlikely heroes battling against a gigantic evil Empire, but because of the scenes of characters interacting. A heroic sniper, bounty hunters with consciences, and traitors that put their own power above their nation and peoples’ survival battling it out is well and good, but I’m going to remember Ahn Ok-yun sitting in a diner next to Hawaii Pistol where they concoct a fantasy of being a couple in order to evade detection by the Japanese army. Or Hawaii Pistol recounting how he killed his own father and wanting to spare Ahn Ok-yun the same fate. Or a traitor wiping out anyone who threatens to expose him because of he doesn’t want to die. The little bits in the larger whole where characters switch from the stereotypes you think they are to fully fleshed out beings.
Assassination spins its web of spies and intrigue before setting up the next big action scene that causes the surviving players to shuffle around and prepare for the next web. Choi Dong-hoon was best known for his heist films, including the international hit The Thieves, and while Assassination is a different genre, it still has the large cast and multiple story angles all coming together. It even follows some of the same story beats, with a mid-movie action sequence (or heist) that everything was working up towards, but it turns out it was just the beginning of the second half of the film with a smaller but larger staked sequence to follow.
Assassination takes place during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Resistance fights for a free Korea, but also chews up its members by asking them to fight hopeless battles or attacks as part of a larger goal that they have little chance of walking away from. The burden is obvious on the leaders, but also spreads to the lower ranks, a spreading sense of hopelessness that threatens to devour some of them from within. Even the assassins for this mission are all plucked from prisons, the resistance betraying the likelihood of survival by their choice of who the carry it out.
The order is given to take out military governor Kawaguchi Mamoru(Shim Cheol-jong) and collaborator businessman Kang In-gook (Lee Geung-young). The prologue shows us Kang In-gook killed his own wife because she was part of the resistance, and lost one of his twin daughters while doing so. She was raised by members of the resistance and is now known as Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun/Jun Ji-hyun). She’s also in jail for shooting her commanding officer. She’s joined by arms dealer Chu Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong) and explosives expert Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon), who are also in jail, and are actually recruited while escaping. They have a handler, Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae), and arrive in Gyeonseong to find their targets. But a traitor has hired assassins Hawaii Pistol(Ha Jung-woo) and Old Man(Oh Dal-su) to kill them. The squad will have to negotiate the authority of a conquering empire and freelance killers to take out their targets. There is a whole twins plot going on where sniper Ahn Ok-yun is the missing twin daughter of collaborator Kang In-gook. Gianna Jun also plays the twin Mitsuko, who is eager to learn about her missing sister, while their father is far more cold blooded, having killed their mother and has no qualms of gunning down Ahn Ok-yun if he were to have the chance.
Like a lot of Choi Dong-hoon films, there is a large cast a a lot of things going on. But despite the sprawl, characters get their story arcs and the general tale holds up nicely.
The only real bulk is the scenes with the historical leaders of the Korean resistance, which besides providing a nice patriotic feeling for Korean audiences also show the framework of the larger resistance which is using our characters to achieve its ends. But the scenes seem to go on a bit longer than required
These quibbles are minor, especially on the grand scale of bigger budget historical epics from Korea, which generally run on the long side. Assassination is great political intrigue with great character moments and nice action sequences that carry weight and consequences. If for some reason you have been putting it off because of just the huge amount of quality media being produced in recent years, we suggest bumping it up your to-watch list.
Rated 8/10 (Too bad King Kong doesn’t actually show up, map time, hideout helper, accidents can be fatal, works for a collaborator, bad men need killing, father of the groom, judge)
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