By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
An undeniably entertaining mix of relevant company intrigue and globe-trotting adventure, Master initially appears like it’s going to be that perfectly timed cannonball fired at the broadside of the South Korean bureaucratic system. But due to a major shift in tone and focus during its second half, this slickly produced thriller doesn’t hit the bullseye like it should. Raking in $41 million in its first two weeks of domestic release, Master has certainly struck a chord with local audiences, and given what has happened politically in South Korea over the last twelve months, one can see why.
The film grabs our attention straight away, with a compelling monologue delivered by Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won), Captain of the Intellectual Crime Investigation Team, comparing a story about Winston Churchill encountering a police officer on the way to an important conference, to the dedication required by his own fellow agents. It appropriately sets the mood for what is to follow.
Kim has been doggedly investigating Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun), President of the hugely successful marketing company One Network, an organisation that have taken money from the everyday person, aggressively invested their money into various, hopefully lucrative interests, and then promising to deliver profits that are both large and fair. Jin is finalising a deal that will see the company take ownership of a bank, something he says will put more money in shareholders’ pockets. It isn’t long before Jin reveals his true identity, lining his own pockets with other people’s money, while seeing the bank acquisition as a way to attain more financial gain from the interest made on shady loans.
Kim sees a way into this highly secretive, well-organised world via software systems Chief Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin), who is coerced into ratting out his Network colleagues. As the group cover their tracks all-too-well, Kim tells Park that what he needs to nail Jin is the location of the company’s data centre, which alludes to the CEO’s various off-shore accounts, and his secret ledger, filled with the names of numerous politicians, judges, and police superiors who have been bribed to look the other way.
Though never able to fully trust Park, Kim and his crew set their plan in motion, but of course many problems occur along the way, with the increasingly treacherous operation eventually taking them to the bustling streets of Manila in the Philippines.
During its first half, Master sets up its plot and characters in a way that is fascinating, promising to examine the inherent corruption that is crippling the current political landscape and the enforcement agencies who work beneath it. Sadly the topic of pyramid schemes never goes out of fashion, and while people are still prepared to believe in get-rich-quick propositions that seem too good to be true, fraudulent slime like Jin and his ilk will always exist. The web of bribery and moral compromise is also handled believably and with purpose.
However, when the story moves to Manila, the entire nature of the film changes, transforming into a Mission Impossible-type crusade where it would not have been out of place if Tom Cruise made a surprise appearance. In fact, one has to largely realign themselves with the movie they are now watching. The plotting becomes more fanciful, the real world politics begin to take a back seat, and as such it undercuts the solid work built up in the early stages. There is no doubting that Master remains enjoyable, but its dramatic impact is diluted.
Particular story elements, as well as the presence of Lee Byung-hun, reminds one of 2015’s Inside Men, which also dealt with widespread corruption in high places. But its densely-plotted script remained fully focused on its troubling subject matter, and is easily the superior of the two films.
Performances are strong right across the board. Gang Dong-won is suitably efficient as Kim, stripping his straight-laced character of any flash and dazzle in favour of obsessive, investigative fervour. Comparable to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s classic The Untouchables (1987), Kim is someone who first and foremost wants justice to be served. This talented young actor has become a major box-office draw, building up a reliable reputation through films such as Duelist, Haunters, The Secret Reunion, A Violent Prosecutor, and The Priests.
Kim Woo-bin, with only a handful of movies to his name, including the royally entertaining Twenty, takes another impressive step forward here. Playing someone who doesn’t know which side to take, Kim makes Park an interesting creation, and also provides a lot of the film’s nicely placed sense of humour.
Megastar Lee Byung-hun, known to western audiences from supporting roles in Hollywood features such as G.I. Joe: The Rise Of The Cobra, Terminator: Genisys, Red 2, and most recently The Magnificent Seven, has a distinguished career that has lasted well-over twenty years. Working with world-renowned film-makers like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Tran Ahn Hung, Lee has appeared in a multitude of critically acclaimed movies, including The Harmonium In My Memory, JSA: Joint Security Area, A Bittersweet Life, The Good The Bad The Weird, I Come With The Rain, I Saw The Devil, and Masquerade. Normally on the side of good, Lee is obviously having fun portraying the bad guy, and his charisma is put to excellent use, convincing audiences that would-be investors would hand over their life savings to this smooth operator.
Other stand out work comes from Uhm Ji-won (Hope, The Silenced, The Phone) as lively agent Shin Gemma, Jin Kyung (Cold Eyes, Slow Video, Assassination) as ‘Mama’ Kim, Jin’s PR manager and fellow partner in crime, and the wonderful Oh Dal-su (The Great Actor, Oldboy, Tunnel, Veteran), who shines as a lawyer with a hidden agenda.
Writer/director Cho Ui-Seok, who has only made three other features, the last of which was the exciting spy thriller Cold Eyes in 2013, again helms proceedings with a sure hand. Cho manages to stay in control even when his script changes tone considerably, riding the initial bump with skill and style. Viewer interest could have been easily lost, but Cho ensures we stay absorbed right through to its effective finale.
Master, with its topical material, could have delivered a memorably potent punch, but a deviation in the writing dissipates the story’s overall impact. Movie goers will be definitely entertained, just not fully satisfied.