As a story about the rise and fall in the heartless world of entertainment business, “Rough Play” is naturally an unpleasant film to watch, but it is not interesting enough to hold my attention. Although it becomes a little more interesting later thanks to its few good supporting performances, it is too late for us, and its sketchy narrative flow does not help much covering its many weaknesses including its tepid depiction of success, corruption, and, of course, price.
Lee Joon plays Oh Yeong, a young unknown actor who frequently invests himself too much into his roles to play. He seems to be not that good, but the line between reality and performance is blurred at times in his mind, and the disorienting opening scene goes back and forth between his disturbing performance on the stage in the past and his loony apologetic behavior with a female mannequin in public.
The story is about what happened to him and his career between these two moments. Ignoring his lines and the direction during that stage performance, Yeong goes too far on the stage, and that upsets not only his co-actress but also the director. While hiring another actress, the director, who has every right to be furious about Yeong’ willfulness, gives him the second chance, but Yeong spectacularly ruins the play again as hopelessly losing himself in his performance and almost straggling the actress to death. I know some good actors lose themselves at times for better performance, but I think this guy seriously needs discipline regardless of how good he is as a performer.
Fired immediately after this disastrous incident, Yeong is approached by a seedy manager named Kim Jang-ho, who says Yeong really has a raw talent to develop and he can help boosting Yeong’s career. Yeong shows little interest in Jang-ho’s tempting offer at first, but it does not take much time for him to accept it, and, after a small but crucial appearance in one film, he quickly rises to the stardom as promised.
But, not so surprisingly, there is a price for his success, and, as expected, the movie shows us the dark sides of show business world as Yeong goes up and up in his career. Jang-ho’s boss is more or less than a thuggish mob boss bullying and exploiting everyone ‘owned’ by him, and there is a heavy price to pay when he is very unpleased. Just because it will guarantee the further success in Yeong’s career, Jang-ho brokers a meeting between Yeong and some rich and powerful middle-aged woman, who is interested in Yeong and wants to go upstairs with him for their private time.
Whatever he feels about the price he has to pay for his career advancement, Yeong is slowly intoxicated with the resulting success. He was already a bit self-centered guy from the beginning, but he becomes more egoistic and arrogant as the time goes by, and that makes his close friend Geun(Kang Shin-hyo), who later replaces untrustworthy Jang-ho as Yeong’s new manager, more estranged from him even though Geun tries his best as his loyal friend/manager.
The rest of the story drones on as Yeong is driven to more arrogance and subsequent depravity. The screenplay by Kim Ki-duk is hampered by static dialogues, underdeveloped characters, and awkward story development, and the characters increasingly feel like the plot devices for emphasizing its points. As a result, we cannot care about the characters or what will happen to them, and the plot just marches on its main character arc with predictable turns.
The actors try hard, but, sadly, they leave a little impression on us despite their efforts. While he does not hesitate from looking very unlikable in many moments and I appreciate that, Lee Joon’s lead performance feels flat and uninteresting, and Seo Beom-seok does not have many things to do except throwing some sneering lines to Lee Joon while looking sinister and despicable as a shifty manager. Seo Yeong-hee, who was great in “The Chaser”(2008) and “Bedevilled”(2010), is regrettably wasted in her minor role, and I am not sure about what exactly happens between her character and Yeong around the ending.
On the other hand, several supporting actors relatively acquit themselves well. Kang Shin-hyo is good as the most sympathetic character in the story although his character is not utilized enough, and Yang Dong-geun has his moment as a callous senior star actor, and Ma Dong-seok is dependable as usual as a real mob boss who turns out to be nicer than we thought.
While constantly making darkly interesting films, Kim Ki-duk has sometimes written the screenplays for other young directors, and the results have been mixed to say the least. “Poongsan”(2011) had several interesting things including its mute, mysterious hero who has a superhero ability to go freely back and forth between North and South Korea for the unfortunate families separated by the Korean War, but it was not entirely successful despite its strong points. In case of “Rough Cut”(2008), which can be viewed as a predecessor to “Rough Play”, it was also interesting as a story about acting and filmmaking, but it never overcame thin characterization and weak plot, though it certainly helped the career of its director Jang Hoon, who later directed more successful films including “Secret Reunion”(2010) and “The Front Line”(2011).
“Rough Play” was directed by Shin Yeon-shick, who previously directed “Fair Love”(2009). It was a small comedy about one middle-aged guy belatedly and awkwardly having the first romantic relationship in his lonely life, and I found it funny and amusing. I have heard good words about his other recent work “The Russian Novel”(2012), and, after disappointed by this film, now I want to watch that movie more than ever.