Friday, July 16, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Running Turtle

There is not much for Det. Jo Pil-seong to do in his provincial town besides drinking and gambling. Regrettably, he is far better at the former than the latter. Typically, he only has to worry about his angry wife, until he crosses paths with a wanted fugitive. Things get pretty messy for the out of shape flatfoot in Lee Yeon-woo’s quirky manhunt film Running Turtle (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2010 Asian American International Film Festival.

Det. Jo is about as a corrupt a doofus as is humanly possible while still being generally sympathetic. His wife though is already running out of patience. When Jo gets suspended from the force, he doubles down on stupidity, cleaning out his wife’s savings to bet on a long shot in the upcoming bull butting tournament. It seems to work out though when his bull pulls off an upset. However, he loses it all when the fugitive Song Gi-tae takes out Jo’s bookie, stealing his winnings just as the slovenly copper came to collect them. Giving chase, Jo eventually mixes it up with the perp, only to wake up black-and-blue and wearing his own cuffs. It is just the first of many humiliations Jo will endure as he pursues his new nemesis, as well as his money.

While erratically careening towards a mano-a-mano showdown between the two antagonists, Turtle takes its time to savor Jo’s angst and family dysfunction. Indeed, some of the film’s most endearing scenes are those of Jo and his daughter Ok-soon, serving as a reluctant go-between for her parents.

As Jo, Kim Yoon-seuk (the breakout star of The Chaser) definitely looks like a loser, projecting an appropriately hound dog likability. Unfortunately, the next sharpest drawn character is his daughter Ok-soon, nicely played by youngster Kim Ji-na. By contrast, his colleagues on the force are blandly interchangeable. Yet, Jeong Kyeong-ho is the most problematic, exhibiting no real presence as the villainous Song. Frankly, he is just kind of dull.

Director Lee’s screenplay offers a few pointed observations of bureaucratic infighting and the vapid celebrity culture that causes some kids to adopt Song as a cult hero. He also respects the small town setting, resisting the urge to use the rural population as the butt of cheap jokes. (After all, bull-butting is probably an endlessly fascinating sport for those in the know.) While he seems to take delight in piling tribulations on Jo’s head, he never lets the tone get to dark.

Largely carried by Kim, Turtle is a small but reasonably entertaining diversion. Blending family drama and small town idiosyncrasies with traditional thriller elements rather smoothly, fans of Korean cinema will find it worth checking out when it screens this Sunday (7/18) at the Chelsea Clearview as part of this year’s AAIFF.