J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Inside Men

It is the same old story. Government is colluding with big business and big media. At least, journalistic hypocrisy gets a good going over this time around. The man who links them all together is naturally a gangster. Crossing him is a bad idea but they do it anyway in Woo Min-ho’s Inside Men (trailer here), starring Star Asia Award Recipient Lee Byung-hung, which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Not only is Lee an award recipient at this year’s festival, he has also just been invited to join the Academy, along with cinematic luminaries, such as White Chicks co-star Marlon Wayans and Melrose Place mainstay Daphne Zuniga. At least Lee makes big movies and An Sang-goo is the sort of role he can finally sink his teeth into. An built his criminal syndicate doing the dirty work of the longtime majority party. He was recruited by Lee Gang-hee, the editor of a national newspaper of selective-record.

Lately, An has been busier than ever cleaning up the messes made by Congressman Jang Pil-woo, the party’s consensus favorite to be their next presidential candidate. When called to dispose of evidence of a slash fund secretly funding Jang’s campaign, An keeps a copy for himself. Unfortunately, he lets Lee in on his game, assuming the duplicitous journalist has his back. This is a terrible mistake that will cost An a hand (literally severed old school Yakuza-style), but it will take time for the disgraced gangster to realize and accept the truth regarding his mentor.

In the meantime, An will launch a revenge plot with the remnants of his gang that will inadvertently compliment the investigation of Woo Jang-hoon, perhaps the last honest prosecutor in Korea. He has a passion for justice, but without family connections or powerful patrons, he will need to score some game-changing convictions to advance. Jang and the automotive company funding him would perfectly suit the bill.

Frankly, this is the Lee Byung-hun film we have been waiting for. Unlike the Western productions that never fully utilize his talents, Inside Men shows off his action chops as well as the seething intensity probably last fully seen in Kim Jee-woon’s bracing I Saw the Devil. Yet, An is also a flamboyant character, who lives large, which makes him fun to watch.

Lee owns the film, but Cho Seung-woo holds up his end as the violently uptight prosecutor. Lee Kyoung-young chews the scenery with abandon as Congressman Jang, but he is so conspicuously sleazy, it is hard to fathom anyone ever voting for him (unless he ran against Clinton and Trump, in which case he would be the clear lesser of evils). As the sanctimonious Lee Gang-hee, Baek Yoon-sik is more understated, but equally loathable. It is too bad Lee El does not have more screen time, because she stands out as An’s loyally accomplice, Joo Eun-hye, while Bae Sung-woo also adds heft as An’s not so loyal henchman, Park Jong-pal.

But wait, there is even more to this story. Woo has added another fifty minutes for his theatrically re-released director’s cut. It is a little surprising NYAFF did not screen the big enchilada, but the one hundred and thirty-minute version never feels incomplete or rushed. It is all totally slick and cynical, but it purrs along quite smoothly thanks in great measure to Lee Byung-hun. Recommended for fans of Lee and gangster-political thrillers, Inside Men screens this Tuesday (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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