ASSASSINATION (2015) — Generic Title, Exceptional Korean Action

Korean espionage action thriller Assassination hit Blu-ray on December 1st from Well Go USA (not to be confused with the similarly titled but unrelated films The Assassin or The Assassins, also from Well Go USA).

I’m not sure why Korean period action films have been so satisfying lately, but despite its unimaginative monepic title (which accurately translates the original Korean title), the 1930s-set Assassination joins The Admiral: Roaring Currents as one of the most impressive new (to the US) action films of the year.

Assassination reunites the writer-director team and much of the cast of the smash hit The Thieves, which was the highest-grossing Korean film of 2012 (it landed just shy of taking the all-time record set by The Host). Despite its major box office impact, I didn’t consider The Thieves anything special. It was clearly modeled after smart, stylish ensemble capers like Oceans 11, but despite some great setpieces and all-star international cast, it never really rose above being a decent imitator of a difficult formula. For me it ended up being something of a letdown, in part because the hype surrounding it.

Assassination, however, strikes me as a superior film. Choi Dong-hoon seems to be more confident in his direction and style, and the film is a unique work which, while it does have some moments of homage, feels like something exciting and new.

Set in Korea’s period of oppressive Japanese occupation, the complex story follows a chain of events set in place by treacherous Korean official Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae), who secretly works for the Japanese. Yeom feigns Korean loyalty by selecting and dispatching a team of assassins to snuff out a pair of important political targets, but separately arranges for an infamous hitman known as “Hawaii Pistol” (Ha Jung-woo) to sabotage the mission by assassinating his assassins.

Confusing? A bit. I did have trouble at first following the different competing character threads, but it’s not incomprehensible. Like any good espionage film there are some twists and turns, but by the film’s end it’s clear who the good and bad guys are, and the story makes sense in its completion. A rewatch would feel effortless.

Language barriers might also provide a subtle source of obfuscation. The film has many Korean and Japanese characters, and significant portions take place in China. Some characters are bilingual and at times speak different languages to hide their nationality or go undercover. I can differentiate these languages aurally, but the average Western viewer probably can’t. A couple of potentially confusing scenes feature Korean characters freely speaking their plans right in front of their enemies, which seems really dumb if you don’t realize they’re counting on the language barrier to protect them. Most of the film’s lingual hurdles are still conveyed pretty well through context, but when it comes down to it viewers might simply need to pay close attention.

I promise that it’s worth the effort, though. Once the various different character paths are set into motion, it really takes off and just keeps getting better. The assassin team is comprised of female sniper Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), whose collaborator father is one of the targets, and a pair of talented but goofy sidekicks (Cho Jin-woong and Choi Deok-moon) who serve as both firepower and comedic relief. The slapstick-tinged comedy of this duo is so disarming that later changes in the tone — lots of people die — feel quite jarring.

As the assassination squad readies their plans, the dapper Hawaii Pistol and his delightfully mustachioed partner “Old Man” (Oh Dal-su) are closing in on them as well, and the interplay between these two groups is clever and exciting, especially when very natural romantic tensions blossom between Hawaii Pistol and Ahn Ok-yun, who have met before. Midway through the film the pair are captured together leading to a vehicular chase scene that’s clearly an homage to Indiana Jones.

The final act is pretty much all-out action, and it’s phenomenal. There’s a sense of well-executed chaos as the different Korean heroes, separated by circumstances and without the benefit of a collaborative plan, each independently try to complete the assassination mission at a wedding, where Ahn Ok-yun is posing as the bride (in a convenient identical twin sister subplot that’s too much to go into here). It’s just an amazing sequence, each of the assassins blowing away bad guys while also trying not to shoot each other. A climax so exciting and adrenalized that I’d recommend the film based on its strength alone.

Watching a twisty-turny spy film in a foreign language is inherently confusing, but once you get past Assassination‘s setup, the back half is just incredible. Compelling story, wonderful characters. Absolutely worth checking out.

The Package

Assassination arrived this week on Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go USA. My copy came with an embossed slipcover that reproduces the cover art. The film is not MPAA rated, but it’s basically a squibalicious, bullet-ridden R.

Special Features and Extras

Trailer (1:40)

 These promo trailers for other Well Go USA titles play on the disc’s startup and are also available in the menu. Memories Of The Sword (1:57), The Pirates (2:09), and The Thieves (1:42).

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Assassination [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

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