Assassination is pure entertainment. Director Choi Dong-hoon pulls together an astonishing group of talent both in front and behind the camera to portray a story close to South Korea’s heart with humour, pathos, gorgeous cinematography and a series of impressively bombastic action scenes to create one of the most exciting adventure films in recent years. Comparisons will and have been made with Quentin Tarantino and his similarly set Inglourious Basterds, but where the American filmmaker’s story veers wildly from historical fact, Choi, while still playing fast and loose with history, keeps as close to at least the essence of the facts as much as he can, as he portrays a very important period in South Korea’s history when the Independence Army fought against the country’s Japanese oppressors at the dawn of the Second World War.
It’s 1933, and the Korean Provisional Government exiled in Shanghai has formulated a plan to assassinate a sadistic Japanese military leader and his Korean collaborator. They send a team of three loose cannon soldiers: female sniper An Ok-yun (Gianna Jun), heavy weapons expert Big Gun (Cho Jin-woon) and bomb-maker Duk-san (Choi Duk-moon). Unbeknownst to them, however, a mole inside the Provisional Government has hired notorious hitman Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) to take them out before they can finish the job. What follows is a rollicking action adventure of intense shoot outs, breath-taking stunts, plans gone awry, split allegiances and mistaken identities through the back alleys and main streets of Seoul.
What stands out immediately about Assassination is its visual beauty. Choi and his cinematographer Kim Woo-hyung fill their gorgeous sets with a glowing brightness that not only evokes the era but makes all the action completely clear from the get-go. This complements the actors’ performances but also helps the audience to never lose sight of the story and its machinations. The action scenes are also a thing of beauty; each one perfectly crafted to not only work as their own mini-narrative but are so seamlessly integrated into the plot they are merely an extension of it rather than being a jarring interruption to the proceedings. Choi follows the classic Hitchcock and Spielberg approach of showing the audience every single element of the succeeding set piece before it occurs so the tension comes not from what is going to happen, but when is it going to happen. This classical approach fits the story and the genre like a glove.
The ensemble cast Choi assembled for the film are also a perfect match for the material. Gianna Jun is perfect as the beautiful, sniper rifle-toting, no-nonsense female action hero around whom the entire movie revolves (An Ok-yun and Imperator Furiosa should compare notes). Her traditionally delicate appearance plays off well against her tough-as-nails persona. Also impressive are her team mates. Cho Jin-woon and Choi Duk-moon come as a double act and provide a lot of the comedy relief. They bring a lot of the humour but are also heroes in their own right as they lay everything on the line for the country they love. Ha Jung-woo as Hawaii Pistol and Oh Dal-soo as his sidekick Buddy round out the group of primary players and they add a dash of the romantic adventure element by playing this broad, but not too broad, which expands the scope of the film toward something more resembling myth than historical re-creation.
Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Assassination uses a particular historical period in order to make an entertaining romp while trying not to disrespect its place in the collective memory. There is a fine line that can be walked in this regard and without knowing a lot about this period and its place in South Korea’s national thinking it certainly feels that the film addresses a lot of what South Koreans understand and/or accept the events. Is it propaganda? Possibly. But then like Tarantino, Choi (and the audience for that matter) has somewhat of a historical detachment which allows a move toward genre spectacle. There is no mention of the Japanese army’s sexual enslavement of Korean women (still a hot button topic between the two nations), which could be a decision made in order for the film to perform at the Japanese box office. Yet, Japan is portrayed in the film, like the Nazis in Western cinema, as a symbol of pure evil. There is a more archetypal approach to some of the more serious issues about the period, which Choi obviously thought would work best in a piece of populist entertainment.
Assassination is a full blooded, high-octane action film of the highest order, which thrills and electrifies like all the best ones do. With a top-notch ensemble cast, sumptuous cinematography and a veritable cornucopia of gunplay and chase scenes, Choi Dong-hoon proves himself to be one of the world’s premiere action directors. When a film comes along that is so assured, yet feels so effortless, there is no more appropriate reaction than to applaud. Choi brings a classicist’s eye and joy to this film that not only speaks to his obvious love of filmmaking but also the love of what cinema was designed to do at its core.