Saturday, February 17, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Runaway (1995) Review

Directed by: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Eun-jeong, Jang Se-jin, Lee Kyung-young

In 1993, a budding filmmaker named Kim Sung-soo was met with critical acclaim with his short 18 minute film, Dead End, which quickly thrust him into the world of feature filmmaking and a two short years later, in '95, he debuted with Runaway, which features Lee Byung-hun in one of his very first roles, and features among other things, a sweeping jazz score, lots of blue lighting, sweaty (comically so) scenes of eroticism, and of course, a whole lot of 90s culture. The plot is also as of the era as imaginable. A video game designer (Lee) hooks up with an artist (Kim), and the two have a good time together one night, but as their steamy night comes to a close, the heat picks back up when a murder is witnessed just outside of Kim's apartment window. Seemingly out of nowhere, the two find themselves pulled into a game of cat-and-mouse as they begin to be hunted down by the group of murderers.

So, yes, this film isn't super great, and I'll say upfront that it is a rough debut and will likely continue to live in obscurity. With the monumental success of Kim Sung-soo's recent 12.12: The Day , though, I could be totally wrong, but I digress. Runaway is about as straightforward as it gets. A man and woman are on the run from a group of baddies. They can't really fight much, so they primarily just run, dodge danger, run some more, rinse and repeat. It's not super stylish, although there are some hints of what would come later in Kim's very stylish works in the late 90s and early 00s. The jazz score that comes in throughout is just wonderful and honestly took me back. I grew up with that music myself, in the decade this came out, so I definitely was all about the score. It actually helped with the film's overall mood. It certainly has an atmosphere, especially during the nighttime scenes and even in the erotic bits, but it doesn't really flow well visually, as a lot of the daytime stuff is just bland and uninspired. The sex scenes feature the characters looking like they were heavily spritzed by spray bottles before rolling the camera, and it kept bringing a significant amount of laughter out of me. Lee is definitely a looker, but honestly, the scenes were never arousing, as I'm sure they were supposed to be.

The 1990s are imprinted all over this film, making it a great little timestamp. We have very outdated mobile phones, the clothes, and the hairstyles are on point, and then you get to see the arcades, and the games on display are your choice. Also, we see Lee's character in a meeting on the video game they are developing, and right next to him is a giant cardboard display of the cult fighting game Primal Rage, which in and of itself is a great oddity that I personally love. I could focus on this aspect of the film for far too long, but if you enjoy the culture of that era, it is on display in full here in all of its glorious wonder.

The action, which doesn't stand out, is quite bloody and varied enough to keep things engaging as our two leads keep escaping the group's deadly grip. Along the way, there are some twists and turns, and I wasn't expecting one of them, which is obvious, but I did like at least one of the surprises. Lee handles his own as the leading man here, bringing about some genuinely great emotions in the right moments. He seems tough on the exterior, but this tenderness is explored and can be quite heartfelt in certain scenes. Again, you don't really get invested much in the plot, but you are easy to route for these two as they are running for their lives. It's simple but effective, although it doesn't really have much emotional impact on the whole.

Lastly, before closing this out, Lee Kyung-young does a great job as the slimy detective who helps out the duo along the way. The film does have moments of breathing time as the case is explored and details begin to surface on what happened that fateful night. He brings the right amount of pizzazz to his role to help elevate the limited technical shortcomings of the film. Speaking of elevating, the great Jang Se-jin steals the show as Wolf, with his distinct look and his absurd double-bladed knife thing that he somehow manages to hide in his suit jacket sleeve. He is great and his character brought a smile to my face every time he appeared onscreen. That's the sort of absurdist angle that this film could've used more of, but it is undoubtedly a welcome element nonetheless.

Kim Sung-soo bursts onto the scene with a film that is a bit rough around the edges but certainly has enough good features to warrant a recommendation from me. It willn't land well for everybody, but at the very least, fans of the director and action films from the 90s can find things to love within this one. Runaway is not a runaway hit (I had to), but it certainly got the ball rolling for director Kim and helped him start running away with a very successful career. I won't spoil what's ahead if you are reading these reviews in order, but Kim's style and his quality of filmmaking soared to great heights over the years. I personally enjoyed seeing this debut of his; whether it is great or not is up for the viewer to decide, but we all have to start somewhere, and certainly, I'm glad things continued for Kim the way they did.

Written by Josh Parmer

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