Director Choi Dong-Hoon’s last film, The Thieves, was a thoroughly enjoyable film. It wasn’t the smartest or most unique thing, but it wasn’t dumb or bland either. It was stylish and interesting and fun, so much so that it made my list of best Korean films added to Netflix in 2013 (several of which are sadly no longer available (though The Thieves still is (highly recommended))). So when I saw that Choi Dong-Hoon had made another film called Assassination and that it involved a zany cast of characters pulling off a big, well, assassination, I was excited.
More often than not, I look for films that will be intellectually stimulating, as obnoxious and pretentious as that sounds. But here was a film by an undeniably fun director, and I was in the mood for something a little less heady and bleak. I wanted a couple of hours of action and (ideally) fun.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Assassination (Amsal | 암살)
Director: Choi Dong-Hoon
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Country: South Korea
An American version of Assassination would be rated PG-13. On the whole, the amount of action in the film would be similar, but the effect of that action would be radically different. Why? Well, because there wouldn’t be any blood. American action films are bloodless, often problematically so. A lot of people die in Mission Impossible – Rogue Agent, but oftentimes I straight up didn’t realize it until I was told afterwards. Is someone dead or just unconscious? You never know, because it all looks the same. It’s an important distinction to make. It’s important to know if the characters we’re rooting for/fighting against are cold-blooded killers or just really good at getting KOs. (I think about this College Humor sketch about Batman and death constantly.) Guns mitigate that to some degree, but a bloodless hail of bullets is always sort of off-putting.
One of the things I like about Korean films is that they rarely have guns. Gangsters use bats because they don’t have guns. Getting a gun is a Big Deal that requires actual Effort, whereas in American films (and America in general), everyone and their newborn has access to a firearm. To put it plainly: Guns are boring. There are exceptions to that rule (Hong Kong films with guns are certainly more exciting than American ones), but given the choice between a gunfight and a fist/bat/knifefight, I’d always choose the latter.
There are a lot of guns in Assassination. It’s a period piece set in the early 1900s, and I guess guns were more prevalent back then. Whether that’s historical license or not, it definitely factors into the way the film’s action plays out. There are a few close-quarters encounters, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Still, the crucial thing to point out is that the film is anything but bloodless. You always know when someone’s been hit, because it’s always accompanied by a spray of the red stuff. And to my eye, they looked like they were actual squibs for the most part. If they weren’t, that was some of the most effective blood CG I’ve seen. (Then again, the version of the film I saw was kinda fuzzy at times, so it’s possible that the image smoothed out. Either way, the blood looked good.)
Assassination follows a ragtag group of killers during the period in which Korea was under Japanese rule. The Korean government was forced underground, and they were being smoked out by the Japanese. So they pull together this group of three killers (and a few pointmen) to take down two figures in the Japanese military regime, one Japanese and one Korean, to hit them where it hurts. From there, things get complicated (as they often do), because one of the pointmen is a double agent (you learn this almost immediately, so… not a spoiler) and he hires an infamous Korean killer to take down the other Korean killers by claiming that they’re a bunch of Japanese spies. And then everyone fools everyone else into thinking that they’re all different people or on different sides or have different intentions.
Trying to keep track of everyone’s particular goals at any given moment is difficult, but fortunately their motives remain consistent throughout. The closest thing anyone has to a change of heart seemed to follow that character’s overall desires pretty closely, so it didn’t even feel like a big moment. It was just the next thing that happened. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises (there are), just that the surprises aren’t left-field twists. The biggest “surprise” was more a reminder: Anyone can die. Not everyone does die, but there are no immortals in Assassination. Those guns I was talking about earlier, they are lethal (or at least crippling) to anyone and everyone who stands in their path. It’s a breath of fresh air, really, actually fearing for the lives of characters you’re rooting for. In Mission Impossible, you know who will and won’t survive. There’s no such guarantees here.
And it results in some legitimately sad moments that fit surprisingly well with the often over-the-top action that surrounds them. You get the high of the ultra-bloody violence followed by the low of ultra-bloody violence against a character that you’ve been rooting for. It’s emotional, but it’s also not a bleak “there is no good in the world” sort of thing either. More often than not, the film can (and should) be described as “fun.” That may come with a few caveats, but this is a film that’s meant to be enjoyed. It undoubtedly succeeds.