'The Thieves' star Gianna Jun headlines Choi Dong-hoon’s blockbuster about a plot to kill a monstrous Japanese general and his Korean sidekick in Japanese-occupied Seoul in 1933.
Tapping into South Korean audiences' undimmed enthusiasm for patriotic period dramas, Assassination — 9 million admissions since its July 22 release in the country and counting — is now officially the best-performing domestic release in its native country in 2015. A welcome change in genre and pace after a career almost entirely built on films about tricksters, Choi Dong-hoon's follow-up to his 2012 hit The Thieves combines lavish production values with spirited performances from his stellar cast as they play out a complex plot revolving around a plan to kill a Japanese colonial commander and his Korean sidekick in Seoul in 1933.
While retaining his favored premise of a motley crew coming together to carry out a mission, the director has suitably toned down his trademark jocularity to take what is to be his first stab at the historical-epic genre. The obvious influences are aplenty, with the film drawing inspiration from — among others — the 1980s Hong Kong action comedies about early 20th century underground revolutionaries (Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues, for example) and South Korea's very own Manchurian Westerns in the 1960s, a subgenre in which nihilistic antiheroes converge in a (Japanese-ruled) town with their cynical eyes fixed solely on the prize.
In limited release since Aug. 7 across the U.S. and Canada, Assassination might be considered by historically uninitiated North American audiences as a serviceable action thriller somehow dated in both story and style. Then again, the film's major foreign market might actually lie closer to home, when it opens later this month in mainland China and Hong Kong. Audiences in the former market might cheer on the film's simplistic representations of monstrous Japanese generals and immoral quislings, while lead actor Gianna Jun's widespread popularity in both territories (thanks to her hit television series My Love From Another Star) will keep the tills ringing.
Onscreen, moral dilemmas are plentiful; offscreen, meanwhile, Choi seems to be struggling to strike a balance between cunning caper and historical-epic pretensions. While the director unleashes his taut action sequences like clockwork, he's less deft in handling the characterizations and the decade-leaping plot, which seems designed to provide the film with some historical weight.
Choi probably knows who his main box-office draw is: It's all about Jun's against-type performance as Ahn Ok-yun, a stern, strong-minded sharpshooter recruited to take out Mamoru Kawaguchi (Shim Cheol-jong) — a murderous Japanese commander responsible for massacres Ahn herself witnessed as a child — and Kang In-gook (Lee Kyoung-young), a Korean businessman hellbent on currying favor with the Japanese army.
While the double-dealing of Ahn's recruiter Yem Suk-jin (Lee Jung-jae, an old boy from The Thieves) moves the story forward, the sniper remains the center of attention. Her associates, Song-ok (Cho Jin-woong) and Duk-sam (Choi Duk-moon), are mostly the source of comic relief before their sorry demise. Meanwhile, hitman Hawaiian Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), whom Yem has hired to kill the assassins, is simply reduced to the role of love interest after their meet cute in a bar, as they are forced to act as husband and wife to avoid interrogation by the police.
For all her efforts in veering away from her national-sweetheart persona, Jun is undermined by a script that constantly reminds the viewer of her screen-goddess status. A running gag sees Hawaiian Pistol's assistant (Oh Dal-su) calling Ahn "Money Girl"; meant to arrive in Seoul incognito, she steps off the train wearing an anachronistically chic beret (see picture above).
Meanwhile, with so much time spent accounting for Ahn's troubles, the other characters fail to come through as full-fleshed individuals victimized by their tragic social and political circumstances — despite the engaging supporting cast.
Still, Assassination moves along with great technical expertise, the film's tone and style effectively anchored by DP Kim Woo-hyung's camerawork and Ryu Seong-hie's production design. All this visual exuberance, however, can only sustain the film as long as the plot holds our interest. And Assassination is overlong: its final, superfluous chapter about revenge, set a decade after the main action, registers as half-baked commentary about how political turncoats could (or probably did) easily attain pedigree and power again after wartime. While easily slaying the competition as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, Assassination is not the historically relevant and emotionally resonant magnum opus that would propel Choi to another artistic level.