Review: ‘The Suspect’ (2013)

Yet another Korean espionage thriller!  Riding the recent wave of sympathetic Northern defector stories, The Suspect (2013) opens January 10th in theaters across the US, courtesy of Well Go USA.   Powerhouse director Won Shin-yun (A Bloody Aria, Seven Days) pulls out all the stops for this turbo-action package starring Gong Yoo, but the film is just too flawed to be great entertainment.  Still, 137 minutes of frenetic, hyper-masculine shaky-cam, a fairly easy plot and a cast that mostly move past their stereotype roles makes for some fun, slightly dopey, super-charged entertainment.

Former North Korean special operations agent Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) defects to Seoul and is seeking revenge for his slain family when he becomes a suspect in the murder of his mentor.  Holding what could be the formula to a chemical weapon, he is closely pursued by counter-espionage agent Colonel Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-son) and deadly enemies from all sides.  Ji must take desperate measures to guard the formula and learn the truth about the fate of his family.

Gong Yoo - Ji Dong-chul - The Suspect - 2013 - Korea - Wong Shin-yun
Oh Se-yeong; Gong Yoo as Ji Dong-chul.

The plot engages on a superficial level.  All the worst Korean spy tropes are present (crying, loneliness, cool hair) and so are all the best tropes: poison, microfiche, deadly assassins and counter-counter-counter-espionage.  Derivative shots, scenes and plot lines from successful intrigue films (The Bourne Identity, The Berlin File, Infernal Affairs and even 300!) are all too noticeable.  The Suspect exploits ALL the ridiculous, fun spy stuff and freely uses convenient moments to further the plot.

One-dimensional characters depend solely on what the actors themselves bring to their roles.  Leading man Gong Yoo’s wooden performance is a serious setback.  Crying may be his emotional forte but gratuitous muscles cannot replace the expression of pertinent feelings like fear and anger.  Cho Seong-ha offers nothing new as the melodramatic crazed villain.  The real human spirit here belongs to cocky, swaggering antagonist Colonel Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-son) and supporting cast Jo Jae-yun, Yoo Da-in and Kim Sung-kyun, who add a spark of life and interest to their roles.  See this film for Park Hee-son’s ability to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with his bad ass and complex character.

The Suspect - Korean - 2013 - Parak Hee-son - Colonel Min - Won Shin-yun
Park Hee-son as Colonel Min.

Director Won is a master of taut thrillers, and this production is extremely professional and trendy.  The photography by Lee Sung-jae (The Yellow Sea, The Chaser) is quite good and Berlin File-meets-James Bond music is engaging.  However, editor Shin Min-kyung (The Thieves; Haeundae) takes a chopper to the action scenes, which irreparably damages their visceral impact.  The many car chases are creative and truly adrenaline-charged but the rapid jump cut editing removes much of the sense of thrill and danger.  While this is a disappointment, the fight scenes are even more than disappointing; they are actually frustrating.  Martial arts director Oh Se-yeong dishes up a whole bunch of extremely cool, kick ass fight scenes (he himself appears in one scene as an awesome killer), all of which are completely destroyed by the editing.  The fights’ frantic pace makes them almost impossible to follow and no actual contact is shown.  Baffling.  The result is a confusing whirl of flailing arms and mad faces with only quick hints at contact and injury.  There is just nothing left to relish.

It all adds up to “average”, which means a fun time can be had anyway.  The super-charged pace, with its non-stop assassins and fights and intrigue and car crashes, will certainly never bore.  Ultimately, The Suspect is a decent Korean spy entry that offers no challenges and leaves no lasting memories.

Showtimes and tickets here:

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