South Korean film “The Shameless” has a few good things to mention amid its many failures. As a gray crime melodrama about two different people who come across each other in their seedy underworld, it is shrouded in dark, moody atmosphere even during its day scenes, and it also has another engaging performance from one of the best actresses in South Korea. Sadly, its murky story meanders a lot while merely depressing and unpleasant all the time, and I became more confused and frustrated as being reminded that there are other films which did better than this tepid film.
It all begins with one murder case which Detective Jeong Jae-gon (Kim Nam-gil) happens to be assigned to. A guy is killed due to some vague matter, and the killer is already identified even before Jae-gon arrives at the crime scene. The suspect’s name is Park Joon-gil (Park Seong-woong), and Jae-gon and other cops instantly focus on Kim Hye-kyeong (Jeon Do-yeon), Joon-gil’s long-suffering girlfriend who left Joon-gil’s former boss for love and then has lived with Joon-gil for years.
Joon-gil’s former boss, who is only mentioned and never appears in the film, was rather generous to Hye-kyeong. She and Joon-gil were allowed to leave together without any punishment for their transgression, but she was later tumbled to the bottom with lots of debts, and she still has to work hard as a local room salon hostess for paying off her debts. In such a difficult life like that, the recent trouble of her boyfriend looks like just another trouble to deal with. She is not that shocked when she learns of what he has done, and she does what she should do for him while he is on the run.
For Jae-gon, it is not merely a simple matter of arresting the murder suspect. Joon-gil’s former criminal associates want Joon-gil to get punished for the trouble he caused, and they soon approach to Jae-gon. Jae-gon is not so pleased about that, but he sees that he has no choice in his situation. While he may be relatively clean compared to his colleagues including Gi-beom (Kwak Do-won), Jae-gon has some shady guy above him, and his ‘sponsor’ demands that Jae-gon should do the favor as asked by Yeong-gil (Kim Min-jae), a despicable middle boss who once worked under Joon-gil.
Jae-gon attempts to catch Joon-gil alone, but his target turns out to be not an easy match to catch. Because Joon-gil is still depending on Hye-kyeong, Jae-gon decides to hang around her for another chance to catch her boyfriend. He introduces himself to her as Joon-gil’s former prison mate, but Hye-kyeong is not fooled by him at all. She quickly recognizes that Jae-gon is not whom he claims to be, but he does not try to avoid her suspicion although he keeps hiding his true identity and motive.
Anyway, Hye-kyeong lets Jae-gon be around her as her new employee who will do some ‘management’ jobs for her (I guess a good enforcer is hard to get in these days). As Jae-gon spends more time around her, Hye-kyeong becomes a little opened toward him, and Jeon Do-yeon did a good job of conveying to us the thoughts and feelings behind Hye-kyeong’s guarded attitude. Although she is still devoted to Joon-gil, Hye-kyeong also finds herself drawn to a man she cannot trust easily, and Jeon always looks convincing as her character is saddled with more conflict later in the story.
However, many things in the movie are not on a par with Jeon’s performance, and, unfortunately, the movie becomes boring and sluggish even before its first hour. The director/writer Oh Seung-wook, who previous wrote the screenplay for “Christmas in August” (1998), did a nice job of establishing appropriate atmosphere and background for his film, but his screenplay fails to engage us mainly because of its flat characterization and plodding narrative. The plot is dragged and uneven, and what is supposed to be its climax feels flaccid to say the least while being devoid of any intended emotional effects. To make the matters worse, the final sequence is abrupt and clumsy in its execution, and it feels utterly hollow and pointless as we think more about it.
Jeon Do-yeon and other actors in the film do try, but most of them are stuck in this bad screenplay from the start, and there is not much they can do about it. Kim Nam-gil is forced to look sullen and brooding throughout the whole film, so we do not get much sense of what his stiff, uninteresting character thinks and feels, and we do not believe much in what happens between his one-note character and Jeon’s character, either. The other actors are also wasted in their one-dimensional supporting roles, and I must confess that I struggled at times to follow the story because the screenplay did not give any clear understanding on characters and motives.
More and more disappointed with “The Shameless”, my mind came back to Chinese film “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014). While having a similar premise, that somber but haunting crime film has more engaging story and characters. I found myself being slowly absorbed into its story, I came to care about its characters more than expected, and I also believed in what is exchanged between its reticent main characters who usually hold their feelings inside them.
In comparison, “The Shameless”, which was shown at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in this year, looks bland and lifeless, and I dislike it more as musing on its serious flaws. I did not care much about the characters or what would happen to them, I became more distant to the story as frequently checking my watch during the screening, and I only felt as lousy as its wretched characters in the end. There is another recent South Korean crime film called “Coin Locker Girl” (2014) in this year, and I recommend you to watch that film instead of this dismal failure. That film really did something new and interesting for its genre; this one does not do anything at all.