London Korean Film Festival: Master

Directed by Cho Ui-seok
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin
Screening at LKFF November 6th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

President Jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the charismatic head of a vast and successful Ponzi scheme that is secretly defrauding thousands. His operation is airtight; able to dissemble itself and destroy all evidence at the merest suggestion of police interference. To bring him down, elite financial crimes investigator Kim Jae Myung (Gang Dong-won) recruits one of Jin’s own employees – the cheeky computer whizz Park Jang Goon (Kim Woo-bin) – in an elaborate game of bluff and betrayal.

Master is great fun, not so much for its character or story, but for its sheer propulsive momentum. This is a film that reinvents itself constantly. What you think is the entire premise turns out to only be the first act: Master effortlessly turns on a dime, switching to a very solid impersonation of Ocean’s Eleven, before switching again into something far blunter and explosive for its final third. It runs nearly 2 and a half hours, yet doesn’t appear to have an ounce of fat on it.

Performances do deserve some credit though: Lee Byung-hun makes for a wonderful villain; charming and vicious. It’s always gratifying to be reminded what good work he can do when Hollywood aren’t making him be a mute ninja in G.I Joe, or a mute cowboy in The Magnificent Seven. And as the ‘buddy-cop’-style duo that carry the comedic weight of the film, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin are pitch-perfect.

Master is the kind of blockbuster that makes 143-minutes feel like 90: In its various guises as financial thriller, heist comedy or police brawler, it’s never less than fun; never lets up the pace. It’s not a classic, but I don’t think it’s trying to be: Within the confines of the crowd-pleasing, glossy entertainment to which it aspires, it’s a master.


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