J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Prison: Hard Time in Korea

The recidivism rate for this prison is darn near 100%, especially if you are fortunate enough to be quartered in Jung Ik-ho’s block. His men start re-offending almost right away, but their incarceration gives them an airtight alibi. It is a heck of a place for a disgraced cop to serve his sentence, but he happens to have a particular set of skills that will be of use to Jung in Na Hyun’s simply-titled The Prison (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A lot of his fellow prisoners are here because of Song Yoo-gun, awkwardly including the top dog of his prison cell. He will take some harsh beatings, but he will quickly develop a survival strategy. It immediately becomes apparent the corrupt warden is not really running the show here. Jung is. He and his men live well in their cell block, where they plot outside jobs to keep the dirty money flowing. By interceding in situations where none of Jung’s other men are crazier enough to act, Song ingratiates himself with the non-aligned gangster. In fact, he quickly becomes one of Jung’s favorites, but he also has a secret you can probably guess.

Those who are familiar with the Well Go USA catalog might wonder if they are starting to repeat themselves, since Erik Matti excellent thriller On the Job starts with a similar premise, but Na Hyun takes it in a very different direction. Like just about every recent Korean thriller, Prison is preoccupied with issues of governmental corruption. Granted, Song has a dramatic backstory motivating him, but unlike Matti’s film, there is absolutely no attention given to the home front. Frankly, there is not a single woman to be seen throughout the film and only one is briefly heard over the phone (so some things about prison life are still a bummer).

On the other hand, there is plenty of cartilage-crunching action. Previously best known as the screenwriter of crowd-pleasers like Forever the Moment, Na Hyun gets his money’s worth with his directorial debut, going big with a truly explosive climax. The two lead antagonists also hold up their end, generating all kinds of hardboiled heat. Frankly, it is great fun watching the hateful-yet-respectful chemistry that develops between Kim (Gangnam Blues) Rae-won and Han (Forbidden Quest) Suk-kyu as Song and Jung, respectively. It is also great fun to watch Lee (Inside Men) Kyoung-young, a character actor who seems to specialize in crooked politicians, do his thing as correctional department head Bae (who ironically happens to be somewhat honest this time around, but is still unrepentantly arrogant).

There is no question The Prison can hang with Inside Men and the most obvious comp film, A Violent Prosecutor, but in many ways, it is grittier and less sentimental. At the risk of sounding fannish, it is exactly the kind of film that reminds us why we dig Korean action movies and thrillers. Recommended with enthusiasm, The Prison opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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