Jae-rim Han’s The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계) stars Kang-ho Song, known for playing chunky dudes who usually don’t know what they’re doing but, in the heat of the moment, summon their own kind of competence. Think of the bumbling dad in The Host, the freewheeling detective in Memories of Murder, or the boisterous North Korean sergeant in Joint Security Area. The man’s also worked for Chan-wook Park, Sangsoo Hong, and Chang-dong Lee, making him one of Korea’s biggest actors. Here, he takes on the role of one of those Korean gangsters who juggles his problems at “work” with trouble at home, much like the lead of A Dirty Carnival. His son’s off studying in Canada, his daughter wishes he’d die, and his wife keeps an ever-more-worrying tally of his various injuries. He longs only to buy a “Western-style” McMansion and move his family in, but elaborate internecine plots to kill him complicate his dream’s realization. The picture gets mileage out of the contrast between his domestic struggles and the expensive-looking knife fights and car chases that separate them, if perhaps a little too much.
Setting a revenge-minded secret agent off after the serial killer who dismembered his wife, Ji-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다) at first seems to go in the direction of one of those “avenger turns worse than the killer” movies, and maybe it actually does, but it feels a cut above that. The whole “Korea, land of EXTREME ASIAN MOVIES” comes, I would assume, from the popularity of movies like this and Oldboy and such. Most of the material wouldn’t seem out of place in a standard Western slasher piece: the serial killer goes around smashing women he spots at bus stops and whatnot, then sawing them apart back at his lair for his cannibal friend; the secret agent follows the killer around, repeatedly maiming him, letting doctors patch him up, and then maiming him again. But Kim goes into a great deal more visual detail than the Saws of the world, which still tend to work with implication, would lead you to expect. What weakness the film suffers from, it shares to varying degrees with much else in Korean cinema: despite approaching ideas worth going deep into — the killer’s supposed unscareability and convictions about everyone’s craziness but his, the secret agent’s slow crumble in the face of his own monstrosity — it stops just short, preferring to deal in expensive-looking camera moves instead.