What’s It All About?
There’s a LOT of plot here, but essentially Assassination is a fact based action drama full of twists about the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation. A team of resistance fighters (Gianna Jun, Cho Jin-Woong and Choi Duk-Moon) is sent to assassinate a high ranking Japanese general and a Korean aristocrat who has thrown his lot in with the occupying forces. What the team don’t know is that their handler Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae) is also a Japanese spy and has sent a hired gun named Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and his partner (Oh Dal-su) after them.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Like so many foreign language films, Assassination has, at least thus far, entirely missed out on a UK release (despite the fact it seems an ideal fit for several distributors). This is just another case of, unless you’re already a fan of the cast and on the lookout for their next project, a movie that can all too easily slip through the cracks.
Why Should You See It?
As I’ve mentioned before, I often find myself despairing the state of action cinema or rather of mainstream US and other English language action cinema. Action filmmaking is a very particular skill and, for my money, there aren’t many people working who have mastered it. Assassination shows that Choi Dong-hoon has.
Choi takes his time setting the pieces here, but he weaves the complex web of double and triple crossings through a series of action setpieces that begin with a high energy prologue, set in 1911, in which Yeom Seok-jin attempts to assassinate the politician who, 22 years later, he’ll be covertly protecting. As well as being an exceptional sequence that establishes the ruthlessness of the collaborator Kim Goo (Kim Hong-fa) and the deadly conviction and will to survive of Yeom Seok-jin, it demonstrates that Choi has a firm grip on the geography and the pacing of his action. You’re confident, minutes in, that if you’re ever lost in an action sequence in this film it will be because Choi wants you to be disoriented for a moment, not because his shooting or cutting are shoddy.
The cast are excellent all round. My memory of Gianna Jun (or Jun Ji-hyun) is as the lead in the rather grating, but very well liked, My Sassy Girl. She buries that memory here, with a no nonsense turn as resistance sniper An Ok-yun. Ok-yun is designated as the leader of the group of assassins and Jun gives her a steely resolve, but also lets us see the emotion under that exterior, especially when Ok-yun learns a key twist, setting up the film’s third act for a confrontation that has suddenly become more personal. Jun is great in these scenes as sadness and regret give Ok-yun even more drive. Cho Jin-Woong and Choi Duk-Moon provide some comic relief, which lends poignancy to Cho’s role in the film’s massive climactic shootout.
The standout performance comes from Lee Jung-jae. The physicality of it is interesting, every move seems purposeful and calculated, as if Yeom Seok-jin considers everything, even down to the way he walks into a room. It’s striking in the contrasts of his work, for instance, the way he moves furtively to meet Hawaii Pistol for the first time but even putting a coat on after he’s promoted towards the end of the film feels performative. Lee lets us read Yeom’s every calculation, we can almost he the gears turn as he tries to find a way to position every person, every situation, to his advantage and the quick way that he re-calibrates, he does this right up to the film’s coda, and it’s this aspect that makes a scene that could otherwise be dealt with as a caption compelling.
Ha Jung-woo and Oh Dal-su have fun as Hawaii Pistol and his older, more mercenary, partner Young-gam, but they give the two a convincing connection and you get a sense of the adventures they’ve had before, as well as the respect between them, from that. The connection between Hawaii Pistol and An Ok-yun, by comparison, feels a little perfunctory.
For all the historical detail (and the production design is excellent) and the refreshing depth of the characters and their motivations, this is primarily an action film, and it succeeds brilliantly in those sequences. Choi Dong-hoon keeps the film moving at a fair pace for the entire near 140 minute running time, never letting the pace flag for too long without an incidental beat of action (an especially good one comes when An has to leave her platoon, but won’t do so before taking out the machine gunners about to launch a surprise attack on them). There are also several large scale action sequences, which fall one in each of the film’s three acts. The wedding shootout where the film climaxes is outstanding, with Choi keeping track of a wide array of characters who are sometimes fighting their own individual battles, before drawing things together several times and revelling in the chaos of the moment.
The standout action scene, however, comes mid-film with the first attempted assassination, which takes place at a petrol station. Things go awry and an incredible chase ensues, which ends up in a moment that visually quotes Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you can imagine the truck sequence with Indy handcuffed to Marion. It is an awesome sequence, mobile and breathlessly exciting sadly, but only slightly, marred by some distractingly ropey CGI fire.
I suspect that Korean audiences and those who are more au fait with Korean history than I am will find Assassination easier to follow, and get the most from its historical detail. For me it was simply a great entertainment with a welcome amount of character depth and some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in ages.
How Can You See It?
As I noted earlier, there is no UK release to date. However, the film is available on (bare bones) US blu ray. Unfortunately the Spanish Region B blu ray appears only to be subtitled in Spanish.