London Korean Film Festival Review: The Shameless (2015)

Head out from Gangnam in any direction. Within a few miles you’ll hit places where people are living out their rock bottoms. Seedy karoke joints, hostess bars, dumpy apartments. From its opening shot, The Shameless is out to remind you of this cold hard fact.

“The Shameless” isn’t new territory. Most of its elements will be familiar to anyone who watches Korean cinema. Corruption, loose women, chaebol mischief, massive debt, gangsters in tacky outfits, deeply non-erotic sex. It may not be new, but it’s done well. “The Shameless” is a machine − a lean and efficient noir gifted with stellar performances.

The story follows weary detective Jung Jae-Gon (Kim Nam-Gil). Jung falls into corruption with a sense of resignation. Everyone around him has gone to the criminal side, even his mentor. How can he resist when no one else has? Jung accepts an offer to cripple Park Jun-Gil (Park Sung-Woong) afte
r he steals the girlfriend of the Vice President of Jay Investment, a corrupt chaebol outfit. Soon Jung is following the girlfriend, then pretending to be her coworker, then falling for her.

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That girlfriend is Kim Hye-Kyung, played by the always show-stopping Jeon Do-Yeon. Jeon previously starred in international successes Secret Sunshine and The Housemaid. Hye-Kyung is, on the outside, an unsympathetic character. She’s a manipulative prostitute at the end of her youth and at the end of her rope. She works in a hostess bar to pay off the debt she racked up partying. But Jeon imbues her with so much pathos and subtlety you can’t help but root for her. You can’t take your eyes off her.

Kim holds his own. There comes a scene towards the end of the movie where Kim manages to convey a lifetime in a couple looks. You’ll know the scene when you get to it. And you should get to it.

shameless verticalThe chemistry between the leads is outstanding. The movie’s most poignant moments are little ones where they furtively entertain a happy future together or with other partners. Hye-Kyung’s life was ruined by her “kryptonite,” Park Jun-Gil. Jung has his ex-wife, who still calls him now and then. And they have each other, whatever help that is.

This is the first movie from director Oh Seung-uk in fifteen years, and only his second movie ever. Oh generally makes his living as a script doctor, but the man knows how to get the best out of his actors.

The fight choreography is brutal and careful. So many movies rely on quick cuts to cover up sloppy action. The Shameless knows it’s worth the extra effort to make it look good enough to play out.

The Shameless is not a perfect movie. The plot is somewhat confusing, and it hits some notes too hard. Many of the side characters blend together. And again, the territory is nothing new. But it is a well-acted and taut thrill ride. Put it in your Netflix queue.

The Shameless is one of the films showing at this year’s London Korean Film Festival which runs until 14th November.