Director: Masahiko Nagasawa
Writer: Yasuo Hasegawa
Producer: Cha Seung-Jae, Lee Jeong-Hak
Cast: Tomoya Nagase, Choi Min-Soo, Hoon Jang, Sung Choi, Jin-myung Go, Shim-young Hahm, Hun-suk Jung, Ki-won Kang, Dong-wook Kim, Ji-youn Kim, Chan-young Lee, Do-hyung Lee, Kyung-hwan Park, Young-jin Park
Running Time: 110 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Seoul is an interesting curiosity of a movie. It looks, feels, and sounds like an early 2000’s Korean action flick, however it is in fact a Japanese production. Produced by the legendary Toho studios, and directed by Masahiko Nagasawa, it was made in that transitioning period for both the Japanese and the Korean film industries. Japan had found its niche during the late 90’s, with quietly unsettling horror movies such as Ring and Audition, however with the dawn of the new millennium, its mainstream output had already begun a decline into mediocrity. The Korean film industry on the other hand was going through the opposite process, having finally got international recognition with the 1999 production Shiri, many consider 2003 to be a defining year for Korean cinema, a year after Seoul hit the screens.
The plot has Tomoya Nagase as a fish-out-water cop in, as the title suggests, Seoul. Nagase was a member of the J-pop group, TOKIO, and his role in Seoul led to him winning the Yujiro Ishihara Newcomer Award at the 2002 Nikkan Sports Film Award. He’s the only Japanese actor in the production, and the movie has him on the trail of a group of terrorists operating in Seoul, who have both Japanese and Korean members. Events transpire in such a way that Nagase soon finds himself paired with tough guy cop Choi Min-soo. The pairing of Nagase and Min-soo is Seoul’s first issue. While Nagase may have proved enough reason for his pop group fan-base to watch the movie in Japan, for an international audience, Min-soo’s screen presence serves to make him look like a scrawny high school boy whenever they share the screen.
Min-soo is considered to be one of the bad boys of Korean cinema. Known for his fiery temper onset, and with a reputation for hitting production staff, he doesn’t come with the best reputation for working with. However his charisma onscreen is undeniable, his tall and muscular frame making him an imposing presence. He can also do action, and the 1995 movie The Terrorist provided a worthy showcase for his fists and kicks. Seoul can be considered to be the first time Min-soo took part in a non-Korean production, however he’s done so several times since then, most notably in the Jackie Chan movie The Myth, as well as taking the lead in the 2011 Hollywood movie Assassin’s Code. While technically he’s a co-lead here, the fact that it’s a Japanese production inevitably sees the focus on the less interesting character Nagase portrays, while he’s left with scenes that have him sat in the police station staring moodily into the distance.
While the production is clearly sold on the pairing of Nagase and Min-soo, the onscreen chemistry really isn’t there. This could partly be blamed on the fact that Min-soo spends half the movie punching Nagase in the face whenever they meet, but the main reason is that Nagasawa chooses to navigate the language barrier between them, by having a translator follow the pair around for 90% of the runtime. The translator, played by Kim Ji-yeon, is little more than a plot device, who literally follows Nagase around to translate whatever he’s saying to Min-soo, and whatever Min-soo is saying to him. She gets no character development at all. While it gets points for realism, cinematically it doesn’t really work, and quickly gets tiresome listening to her constantly repeat what the other actor has said either in Korean or Japanese. Seoul would have benefited greatly from employing a fictional device, such as the ear pieces worn in the more recent Helios, which has Hong Kong and Korean cops working together.
Predictably, the script also decides to incorporate some highly awkward speeches concerning Japanese and Korean relations. In reality, the relationship between Japan and Korea has always had a high level of tension bubbling beneath the surface. In a nutshell, it boils down the fact that Japan has never formally apologized for its treatment of Korea while it was under Japanese rule from 1910 – 1945. During that time Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, were expected to only speak Japanese, and many of the women were forced into prostitution to ‘service’ Japanese soldiers. Much like with China, for Korea it remains a sore point. So when Nagase breaks into a speech declaring how great it would be if Japan and Korea could just get along, it induces more than a few cringes.
During the finale is when things most likely get extra uncomfortable for a Korean audience, as scriptwriter Yasuo Hasegawa has Min-soo give Nagase a ridiculously cheesy send off, complete with his own Korean Air flight. Nagase’s walk to the plane is lined with the whole police department and airline staff saluting him as the hero, as Nagasawa closes proceedings making it abundantly clear that Japan has saved the day. While for a broader audience these cultural nuances will have little bearing on their overall opinion of Seoul, the multiple denouncements still translate as poor cinematic language, dragging the ending out unnecessarily.
Seoul of course also promises to deliver its fair share of action, however that promise is not one that’s delivered. While Japan hasn’t been able to deliver a solid action movie since the Sonny Chiba karate flicks of the 70’s, for Korea it was an action movie that put their film industry on the map, with the breakthrough hit Shiri, made just 3 years prior. The shootouts that comprised the action in Shiri were undeniably Hollywood-esque in their execution, bringing to mind productions such as Michael Bay’s The Rock and Bad Boys. In many ways the 5 year period from 1999 – 2003 was a transitionary era for Korean action. Most 90’s Korean action movies up until that point has been of the fedora wearing gangster variety, and employed Taekwondo based fight scenes from the likes of 80’s kung fu movie stalwarts Casanova Wong, Dragon Lee, and Hwang Jang Lee.
Shiri seemed to mark the end of that era, as the shift moved to recreating the glossy shootouts seen in Hollywood productions. It wasn’t until the infamous corridor hammer fight in OldBoy, from 2003, that Korean action seemed to shift back to creating its own flavor. Seoul is a prime example of an Asian movie attempting to recreate the Hollywood style of action, what little there is of it, with a finale that in particular seems to have been inspired by the street shootout in Heat. With such an emphasis on shootouts, it’s a shame Min-soo doesn’t get to let rip with his feet at any point during Seoul, as it could certainly have livened up proceedings. Most likely the action was handled by a Korean unit, otherwise this could well be the only case of a Japanese action scene copying a Korean action style influenced by a Hollywood action aesthetic.
Overall Seoul is an interesting collaboration between Japan and Korea, made at a time when relations were going through a good patch between the pair. Both countries co-hosted the FIFA World Cup the same year (the only time in history it’s ever been co-hosted), so a movie which saw a Japanese cop and Korean cop working together probably also seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s difficult to imagine a production like Seoul being made now, if anything the Korean film industry has long since surpassed the Japanese equivalent, both in quality of output and popularity, and would most likely turn its nose up at such a suggestion. However, if the outcome of such a collaboration would result in a movie similar to Seoul, then perhaps that’s for the best.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4.5/10