Saturday, June 9, 2018

Believer (2018)

Director: Lee Hae-young
Notable Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon, Jung Jun-won, Jin Seo-yeon, Kang Seung-hyun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jung Ga-ram

Remakes. As much as they are seen as a plague on the film industry, they exist and considering that they are not going away any time soon we should simply hope for the best from them. Even with this approach in mind, it was hard not to be cynical about the announcement that there would be a South Korean remake of Johnnie To’s recent crime thriller, Drug War. Namely because Johnnie To did it so impeccably well to delivered a nihilistic slice of brutally subtle narrative and viciously opportunistic characters in a chaotic world within his film. With the remake, under the title Believer, getting a limited theatrical release from our friends at Well Go USA, hope was lifted. By the time that the credits rolled, that hope turned to relief. Believer is not ‘just’ a remake of the Johnnie To film, but it’s definitely a new interpretation of the original. In many ways, this film takes the blueprints laid out by To and builds a new film of its own on top of it. Believer uses some of the elements, here and there, but ultimately crafts a unique vision of the story. It is a film that effectively succeeds
on its own merits and delivers a crime tale that’s as smart as it is explosive.

Hanging out. Waiting for violence.
Like many of the South Korean action films and thrillers that make their way to the US, Believer is a film that is impeccably executed in many ways. In a stark contrast to To’s original, this version of the story is less gritty in its visuals and far larger in scale. Visually, it features some fantastic cinematography that soars in using some of the unique settings and refuses to be saddled with the dark and urban grimy landscapes that I expected it to maintain. Instead it uses this to parallel the larger scale of the narrative. Director Lee Hae-young slathers the film in impressive execution onscreen and uses the strong key sequences from the original film to power through the elongated narrative builds of the first and second acts. While some of those moments do occasionally pale in comparison to the original, in regards to the dual deal making in the hotel as a prime example, all of it still works and works well thanks to the fluid execution onscreen.

Waiting for that moment...
Performance wise, the actors and actresses of Believer are certainly bringing some impressive performances to the plate. As with the original film, this one focuses on the interweaving of the two lead characters, one detective intent on bringing down a drug kingpin named Mr. Lee and the other being one of drug lord’s communication men forced into working with the police. Their chemistry on screen is dynamic and enthralling for the audience as they push one another towards the edge and continually pull one another back from it. For those familiar with the original, you will be pleasantly surprised at the changes that the film makes with the characters to give them a lot more backstory and more emotional depth than whatever is in the moment for them to draw on. In particular, it gives the film a lot more depth this time around and creates some new twists and turns for the film to dig into for the third act.

Which then brings us to the fact that the third act of Believer is almost completely restructured and different from the original film. Now to delve into the third act with any kind of analytical depth would require us to reveal a plethora of wonderful spins, surprises, and shocking moments of the film. Rest assured, if you think you know where Believer is going as a film it will leave you with your jaw scraping the floor. Director Lee Hae-young meticulously brings out some fantastic themes about belief systems and other smaller moments from earlier in the film that wrap around into some artistic territory after the big action set piece. It also helps that instead of trying to recreate the intense and patented To style gun battle in the middle of the street from the end of Drug War, Believer opts to create its own action set piece that does lean hard into some pulpy territory (particularly with a high kicking fight between two lethal ladies that seems a tad out of place compared to the rest of the film which doesn’t feature that kind of Hong Kong inspired martial arts) for its third act. It’s a smart move that pays off in dividends.

...when you leap into action!
In the end, while I love Drug War for being a film where ‘less is more’ and it relies on its execution and dense and subtle writing to deliver on its promises, Believer is a film that takes the concept and truly makes a film that’s different and just as impressive in execution. Even when the film stumbles a little, it is built into a world that where mistakes or oddities make more sense. The film generally has a much more mainstream and pulpy tone that was unexpected, but it works wonderfully as it blends the ideas of the original with its own identity. Believer is a film that delivers on the entertainment, thematic heft, and bombastic concepts. It comes very highly recommended.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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