“The Suspect” is a well-made action film which will remind you of many, many thriller films about a lone guy on the run. Its busy style represented by quick cuts and shaky handheld camera movement is certainly influenced by none other than the Bourne Trilogy, and its cat-and-mouse game between its two characters is definitely borrowed from “The Fugitive”(1993) and any other thriller films about a crime, a wrongly accused suspect, a doggedly persistent investigator, and, of course, exciting chase actions.
That is not essentially a bad thing because all these things mentioned above have been becoming genre conventions, but the movie also reminds me of several recent South Korean films about the action heroes coming from the North. In this year, South Korean audiences saw “The Berlin File”, “Secretly Greatly”, and “Commitment” released at South Korean theaters, and now “The Suspect” gives us another story about North Korean agent stuck between North and South, and it is somewhere in the middle of these films in case of quality and quantity.
On the surface, Ji Dong-cheol(Gong Yoo) looks like a plain North Korean defector currently working as a taxi driver in Seoul, but he has the past he is not so willing to talk about. He has some reason for coming into South Korea, and we see a map of Seoul on the wall in his shabby room filled with lines and marks all over it. He seems to be searching for someone in Seoul, but looking for someone in Seoul only with his name is pretty much like searching for a needle in the haystack – especially if the person in question does not want to meet him.
He has been helped by the chairman of some big corporation, who, as a man who has been separated from his son in North Korea, has done lots of things to make the relationships between North and South Korea less hostile despite the criticisms toward him and his company for helping North Korea too much. Not long after their meeting, the chairman is assassinated and Dong-cheol kills an assassin on the spot, but he soon finds himself becoming the prime suspect of this case, and the police and National Intelligence Agency are instantly chasing after him.
Other main characters besides him are introduced to the plot subsequently, and we get acquainted with each own motive while Dong-cheol is on the run. As the primary chaser, we have Colonel Min Se-hoon(Park Hee-soon), your average tough military guy who encountered Dong-cheol during one disastrous incident in Hong Kong which resulted in his recent career downturn. As the main bad guy, we have Kim Seok-ho(Cho Seong-ha), an arrogant and slimy high-ranking agency official who orchestrated the assassination for some purpose and is going to eliminate Dong-cheol and cover his crime by any means necessary. And, finally, as a typical female character who somehow gets involved in the situation, we have Choi Kyeong-hee(Yoo Da-in), a plucky young reporter who, like others, turns out to be associated with Dong-Cheol a lot more than she seemed to be.
The movie runs quick and fast with its hero, and it has several good, exciting action scenes set to impress or disorient you with its pace and intensity, though they look awfully familiar. As the camera busily looks here and there and the soundtrack is propelled by the ostinato reminiscent of John Powell’s scores for the Bourne Trilogy, Dong-Cheol tries to get away from the guys chasing after him, and Colonel Min and others at the headquarter watch over the situation through, yes, those big, fancy widescreens in the control room.
And we see our gritty hero sometimes suffering from his traumatic past when he is not chased. With another approach straightly borrowed from the Bourne Trilogy, the movie scans through his painful memories associated with his wife and young daughter when he is sleeping, and we also get his background information through others, who conveniently have some time to talk and explain to us about 1) what’s going on and 2) why Dong-cheol runs around Seoul instead of disappearing from their sight. Not so surprisingly, Dong-cheol was one of the elite officers of some infamous North Korean special military unit, and there is an almost unbelievable scene when he manages to rescue himself when he has just been hanged by his neck after so many tortures including a horrible cross between water and electronic torture.
With such a resiliently combative character like him, you will not be surprised to see how he just keeps going on and on despite a number of intensive physical fights and car chases. The technical quality of the movie is impressive, and Gong Yoo shows lots of commitment to his physical performance besides his well-trained body. I like how smartly the movie uses those small, narrow alleys in Seoul for one of its brutal car chase scenes, and I was also amused by how Dong-cheol finds a way through the police barricade ready for him while simultaneously taking care of a chasing police patrol car at the same time.
But I kept being distracted and disoriented by its shaky camera movement and busy editing, and I got a distant feeling toward to its exciting moments. As shown in the Bourne trilogy and other action films, we usually need a certain amount of emotional gravity for caring about the actions on the screen regardless of whether they feel shaky or not, but Dong-cheol feels rather bland in Gong Yoo’s stoic functional performance; he just pushes on while revealing little about what he feels or thoughts even during a short respite in the middle of his plight, and the movie does not delve deep enough into a tragic irony in his clashes with the former North Korean agents who must kill him for their survival in South Korea. The movie also feels too long and too exhausted especially around the climax, and its sentimental epilogue does not look particularly necessary in my opinion.
Besides Gong Yoo, Park Hee-soon and Cho Seong-ha are dependable in their performances, and Yoo Da-in somehow makes us overlook the implausibility of her character’s situations. Even after going through so many violent things thanks to her scoop, this reporter does not look that affected much while doing her duty as a reporter all right. Seriously, someone really should send her to Syria or South Sudan as a foreign correspondent right now.
The director Won Sin-yeon and his crew made their film as ferocious and exciting as any average Hollywood action blockbuster film, and their efforts deserve to be admired considering their equal technical achievement with lower production budget. But, still, they could have added a little more style and substance for playing music rather than notes.