BFI London Film Festival: Assassination

Directed by Choi Dong-hoon
Starring Gianna Jun, Lee Jung-jae and Ha Jung-woo

by Richard Hamer

Director Dong-hoon Choi’s follow up to 2012’s excellent crime caper The Thieves takes us back to the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1933, and a resistance assassination plot to take out two key figures in the Japanese military. Much like his previous effort, Assassination is an extremely enjoyable action film, surprisingly complex in construction and seemingly effortless in execution.

For a greater part of the movie, we follow a rag-tag trio of former convicts/wannabe-assassins, led by military sniper Ok-yun (played with subtle intensity by Ji-hyun Jin). Hired by the underground ‘provincial government’ of occupied Korea, they set about planning an audacious, broad daylight ambush. Their simple – if brutal – plan quickly unravels as a whole litany of complications arise: betrayal by the man that hired them, the unwanted attentions of a pair of eccentric hitmen, and… other, more bizarre plot twists it would be a shame to spoil.

What makes Assassination work so well – and again this was something so ably demonstrated in The Thieves – is how well it balances such a large cast, with multiple, interweaving narratives. After a minor stumble in the film’s slow opening act, the rest of Assassination moves at a wonderful, tight pace. With every character so well-defined so quickly, and every scene so clear in its trajectory and meaning in the larger narrative, Choi can leap us from character to character with a self-assuredness, a confidence that extends to every aspect of the film.

This is especially true of its lavish production. Assassination is an expensive movie: the 1930’s setting wonderfully recreated through its costumes and detailed sets; the roar of its many Tommy Guns and the chasing and destruction of its many period vehicles. And my goodness, the action sequences: while they are few in number they are perfect in execution, Choi’s skill with multiple protagonists again demonstrated in gun fights incorporating two, three opposing factions, the camera deftly and neatly framing each. It’s chaos out there, but with Assassination there is always a real sense of clarity, in its story and in its action.

There is a question of how long it will truly linger in the mind; Assassination is always too much the slick sometimes-action, sometimes-comedy to deliver the kind of memorable, dramatic punch its historical setting allows, but as an action comedy it succeeds on virtually every level.

Smart, funny and thrilling, Assassination is a great addition to the pantheon of big-budget, Korean cinema. I, for one, look forward to seeing what Dong-Hoon Choi brings us next.


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