There are certain movies known for having notoriously complicated plots and stories that especially on first viewing are sometimes mind-numbing and are often subject to criticism from critics when they appear. I’m thinking of films like The Big Lebowski, Miami Vice and hell even the first Mission: Impossible. What these films have in common, at least in my mind, is that the stories themselves aren’t really that important when push comes to shove. Miami Vice is really a vibe picture with cool visuals and stylish touches that fit given the subject matter, The Big Lebowski is a stoner comedy that’s much more concerned with the characters than the whole kidnapping conspiracy that frankly makes little to no sense, and Mission: Impossible, whilst definitely being a solid Brian De Palma-directed spy movie is also in some way just an excuse for a bunch of exciting set pieces. What I’m getting at, whilst it would be an exaggeration to suggest the story doesn’t matter in these films or isn’t worthwhile digging into, they’re not exactly driven by the plot in a way. A filmmaker who’s made a career out of making heavily plotted genre films is Korean genre-bending auteur Kim Jee-woon. His films A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil and various others are like Swiss watches; incredibly well-constructed whilst the plot is tight as hell. And that tends to work, most of the time. But unfortunately, Kim’s latest film from 2018, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, doesn’t sustain itself and drowns in plotting and confusion, making it a dissapointment.
The plot, well I will try to remember the plot but it frankly is very hard. From what I understand the film is a live-action remake-of-sorts of an animated Japanese film titled Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, itself an adaptation of the manga Kerberos Panzer Cop, both film and manga written by Mamoru Oshii. The original film takes place in an alternate 1950s Japan but Illang transposes it to a future dystopian Korea in the year 2029. A Korea ravaged by years of conflict due to attempts at reunification met with violence by a resistance movement called “the Sect.” In response, the Korean government created a new special division of cops known as Illang (which literally translates to Human-Wolf). The movie itself concerns itself with a couple of characters involved in both the police and the resistance movement, but I’m afraid this is as detailed a plot description as you’re gonna get from me because I can’t for the life of me remember the plot details of this movie.
Now as I said before, Kim Jee-woon is no stranger to complicated plots, as most of his films deal with double-crossings, betrayals, shifting loyalties and powerplays etc. I could maybe even argue that he’s the Korean Christopher Nolan; someone who makes very big, bold, complicated extravagant films. So if Kim Jee-woon is Korea’s answer to Nolan, then Illang is Kim’s answer to Tenet, as in the plot gets so confusing and hard to follow it almost becomes frustrating to watch. Now there’s no time invertion in Illang, but I think I found myself enjoying Tenet more because at least I could understand some of the characters motivations and some of the logic. Here I was just confused the whole time because everyone betrays one another and some character backgrounds are mentioned and discussed in dialogue form so you’re gonna have to pay real close attention to everything everyone says all the time. And with a running time clocking in close at 2½ hours, I got real tired very quickly and started to loose interest in the action. It doesn’t help either that the pseudo-lead actor, Gang Dong-won, is no Song Kang-ho when it comes to screen charisma or talent. I get his character is supposed to be tired and battle-weary but he still exudes dullness on screen for me a lot of the time. The rest of the cast is fine but nothing exceptional I’m afraid.
What almost makes everything worse is actually one of it’s positive attributes, which is the technical side. I’m convined that Kim Jee-woon is simply incapable of making a dull-looking movie with bad or just lazy filmmaking because the action scenes in this, especially the first hour, are exceptional in terms of shooting, geography, blocking etc. It’s all really well-done and so good that once again, it almost makes the dull nature of the script worse. And a key trademark missing from the film for me was Kim’s sense of humor. Even in a film as dark, bloody, vicious and bleak as I Saw the Devil, he still managed to inject it with moments of levity, albeit one of a pitch-black nature. My comparison to Tenet doesn’t even hold up here because Tenet had more humorous moments in it than this did. It’s just something of a miserable slog to get through really.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m really disappointed by this movie. Like I said, I really dig Kim Jee-woon and though he’s not on par with some of his Korean contemporaries, he’s still a really solid and reliable set of hands who (almost) always makes twisty and interesting genre films, but unfortunately he couldn’t deliver this time out. Whenever he makes his next film, I hope he makes something a tiny bit more stripped down. Don’t worry Kim, I have faith in you. I’m not gonna write you off simply because you made one film I dislike, you have more great films in you, I just know it. And whenever you have a new one coming out, I will be first in line to see it.