The Net (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A North Korean fisherman trapped between both sides

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South Korean film “The Net” kicks and screams with its indignation over the social/political divide which has been continued for more than 60 years in Korean peninsula. Through its sad, brutal tale of one ordinary man who happens to be trapped between the two opposing sides which both mercilessly crush his body and soul, the movie attempts to deliver an angry human statement on the insanity and injustice around the long, frustrating conflict between North and South Korea, but it is often too blatant and preachy, and I was constantly distracted by that despite its several intense raw moments.

Nam Cheol-woo (Ryoo Seung-beom) is a fisherman who lives in a North Korean village near the demarcation line between North and South Korea, and the opening sequence shows the mundane beginning of the day which is going to change his life forever. He lives with his wife and their cute little daughter in their small, shabby house, and they have managed to lead their own cozy life together within their small private place despite their oppressive society, which is mainly represented by the photographs of the current dictator Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather hung high on the wall in their house.

His usual fishing area is right next to the demarcation line, and Cheol-woo is well aware of the worst situation which can happen at any point during his working hours. He has to go through the routine process at a military checkpoint right before coming to his fishing boat anchored at the shoreline, and he will promptly be shot if his boat ever happens to go over the line. This is too risky (we do not see any other fisherman working there besides him), but we gather that it is the only way of earning his living.

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While he is fishing during that day, his boat has an engine failure when his net happens to be entangled in the engine, and he soon finds himself being helplessly drifted toward the South. He is luckily not shot by North Korean guards, and he is then detected by South Korean guards on the other side not long after his accidental crossing.

After he is promptly taken to Seoul, Cheol-woo is interrogated by a mean, vicious South Korean agent who instantly suspects Cheol-woo right from their first encounter. Still stuck in the Cold War mindset which remains among many South Korean people even at this point, he is determined to squeeze out anything incriminating from Cheol-woo. While the movie is relatively tame compared to the director Kim Ki-duk’s other violent, disturbing works such as “The Isle” (2000) and “Pieta” (2012), Cheol-woo goes through lots of cruel bullying from this hateful guy during a number of intense and unpleasant moments unfolded within the interrogation room, and then there is a cringe-inducing moment involved with another North Korean guy under investigation.

Jin-woo (Lee Won-geun), a young South Korean agent who is ordered to protect and monitor Cheol-woo, comes to care about Cheol-woo as being near around him, but then there are not many things he can do about Cheol-woo’s increasingly difficult circumstance. To Jin-woo’s superiors, Cheol-woo is merely a guy to be used against North Korea, and they have no problem with labelling Cheol-woo as a spy if that suits them well. At one point, they deliberately loose Cheol-woo in the middle of Seoul for getting any possible evidence against him, and Cheol-woo gets a brief experience in the world which is utterly alien and baffling to him in many ways. He cannot help but be drawn to its many brighter and better sides, but he also sees its other sides mainly through a woman he happens to rescue from a couple of thugs – and he still worries about his family’s safety.

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Around a preordained plot turn, the movie becomes more heavy-handed than before with its repetitive third act which took me back to those grim tales I read from anti-communist magazines during my childhood years, and that was the point where I came to care less about the story. Cheol-woo is virtually a symbolic figure to be cornered and tormented as required, and he frequently acts and speaks like a mouthpiece for the screenplay writer Ki Seung-tae. Most of the supporting characters in the movie are more or less than caricatures to exasperate us, and I especially feel sorry for Kim Yeong-min, who probably had no choice but to go way over the top during an expected payment moment for his loathsome bully character. It might be intended to be serious and dramatic, but it looks more like an embarrassing case of overacting to me.

I know I should not expect subtle storytelling or complex characterization from Kim Ki-duk, whose works have always been simple and forthright in handling their dark, uncomfortable subjects. That kind of approach can be effective while giving us something unforgettable such as that fish hook scene in “The Isle”, but it also can lead to tedious disappointment like his recent movie “One to One” (2014), a monotonous revenge drama which does not seem to go nowhere as remained stuck in its barebone premise to our boredom.

“The Net” is one or two steps above “One to One”, but it is still disappointing compared to Kim’s better works. Despite its considerable emotional intensity fueled by Ryoo Seung-beom’s committed lead performance, the movie is just brutal and unpleasant in its polemic attitude, and I was left with empty feelings while also bothered by the crude depiction of its few superficial female characters including Cheol-woo’s wife. It surely makes its points loud to us, but I don’t think I will remember it for a long time.

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