Every time I watch an Asian film, I check out its page on AsianWiki. It’s a pretty great database, especially for Korean films, and I have gotten a lot of use out of it over the past few years. Much of the time, the User Rating is not too far off from how I feel about a film. In fact, at one point last year there was a string of films where my scores happened to be exactly ten below their user ratings. (But our system is presumably much harsher than the internal feelings of AsianWiki’s audience.)
At last year’s New York Asian Film Festival, I saw a film called Secretly Greatly. It was… average, but the AsianWiki score (with 1104 votes!) was a 95. I’ve been wondering how that was possible ever since, but I think I’ve figured it out: It’s all about the fangirls.
With 441 votes, Commitment holds a 96 on AsianWiki. I didn’t understand it, until I saw that the name of the lead actor was “T.O.P.” What kind of horrible person goes by the alias T.O.P.? Well, an entertainer, of course! But not just any entertainer, T.O.P is an award-winning rapper/singer/composer/lyricist/beatboxer/actor/record/producer/model/member of the K-Pop group BIGBANG).
The girls love him.
[This film will be playing for free tomorrow night, January 14th, at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City, starting at 7 PM. More information can be found here.]
Commitment (Dongchangsaeng | 동창생)
Director: Park Hong-Soo
Country: South Korea
The Korean name for Commitment literally translates to “Alumni,” and it’s one of the rare times where I feel like the foreign name makes more sense, though just barely. Commitment sounds like the name of a film starring a K-Pop singer, but it doesn’t sound like the name of a film about murder. And really, that’s what Commitment is about.
T.O.P plays Li Myung-Hoon, a newly-minted North Korean spy from Unit 8 Special Ops. He is sent to South Korea in order to find and terminate the man from Section 35 who has been killing all of his comrades. So even though it’s a film about North Koreans in South Korea, the North/South conflict plays only a minor part in the narrative. This is about North Koreans doing things to North Koreans. As it turns out, most of those things involve betraying them and then stabbing, punching, or shooting them until they’re dead.
I feel like a North Korean spy would be insulted by the characters in Commitment, because none of them are particularly smart. Almost every single encounter plays out exactly like this:
Myung-Hoon: I just put a gun to your head.
Target: Here’s your information. Please don’t kill me.
Myung-Hoon: Cool. Thanks, bro.
Target: Psych! Now I’m going to try to kill you!
Assassin: Fortunately, I’m the protagonist, so I’m going to survive and you’re not!*
*As the protagonist in a Korean film, his survival is not actually guaranteed.
It’s that second part that doesn’t make any sense to me. On multiple occasions, this exact situation plays out, and every single time the information given is legitimate. WHY? (I mean, obviously because that propels the story forward, but that’s not really an excuse.) These are sleeper agents who have been sent to South Korea to further the ideals of their home country, and there is absolutely no reason for them to tell him the truth. It’s not like he’s able to check it on the spot. “A butcher saw him!” is vague information. He could have said, “It was the person at the dry cleaner” or anybody except the person who might actually know. Even under the assumption that Myung-Hoon would not be making it out alive (because of Exchange Pt 4: Attempted Murder), giving him that information makes no sense. But they do it, and when he takes them out with his flashy moves, he is able to continue his mission.
The only real obstancle is Lee Hye-In, the girl he sits next to in his new life as a South Korean high school student. (Oh yeah, his cover in South Korea is an almost-20-year-old high school student.) In high school, he tries not to draw attention to himself, but he is pulled into fights by the schoolboys who don’t like him because he’s new and won’t back down (also they think he’s Yanbian, and racism is alive and well). But he also doesn’t confront them; he just lets them do whatever because he’s a North Korean badass and they’re wimpy little South Korean high schoolers. But when they go after Lee Hye-In, it’s not acceptable. Why does he care so much about this girl he doesn’t know? Because she has the same name as his sister, who he left back in North Korea and whose safety was the primary motivation for him becoming an agent in the first place.
There’s no romance between the two, but the film still plays it like there is one. If there weren’t subtitles, I would have just assumed that the two of them were getting together in some way and been surprised (though not unhappy) that they never kissed. Yes, I would have been extremely confused in the scene where he poses as her brother and signs some paperwork for her, but I was already kind of confused about that, because that’s not an American practice.
They become “friends,” which is all well and good, but while they’re off having frivolities, the main narrative continues to play. For something like 20 minutes, Myung-Hoon’s mission is forgotten as he goes off and does whatever, and then the Section 35 assassin shows up and murders his “foster-parents,” two North Korean spies he was living with as cover. Of course, he doesn’t have a whole lot of connection to them, but if he hadn’t been off not-working, maybe he would have gotten to the guy sooner (he had come pretty gosh darn close a few scenes prior) and saved a few lives. His motivations don’t really make sense.
Then again, he’s a kid, as people love reminding him, and some of his irrationalities can be justified by saying, “Dude’s 19. Whatever.” But the film heavily implies that he grew up in a labor camp as the only person caring for his sister, so he probably grew up pretty quick and would be a bit more hardened to the outside world. Even so, he doesn’t seem particularly tortured by that experience.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Thinking about all of Commitment‘s oddities will leave you wanting, but if you’re just in it for the T.O.P eye candy, the film’s got plenty to offer you. Myung-Hoon’s not a particularly expressive character, so it’s hard to judge T.O.P’s acting abilities, but he made for a perfectly pleasant protagonist. He didn’t ham it up, despite numerous chances to do so, and he clearly put a lot of effort into the whole thing. I don’t know how much of the fighting was him as opposed to a stunt guy, but the parts that definitely were him were all pretty awesome. This isn’t the best action out there, but it’s got some nice variety.
Commitment is wholly decent. There’s plenty to like and almost as much to dislike, but the good generally outweighs the bad, and people who don’t think all that much about it will have a better time. Those who just want to watch T.O.P do things? If the AsianWiki ratings are anything to go by, they’ll freaking love it.