Wednesday, November 04, 2015

NYKFF ’15: The Shameless

It is hard for a femme fatale to age gracefully. Kim Hye-kyung might look like she is, but the hostess is having a particularly tough time of it, due to the constant harassment of loan sharks and mobbed-up businessmen. She fell for the wrong guy and never stopped falling. Undercover Detective Jung Jae-gon is probably an even more wrong guy, but he manages to insinuate himself into Kim’s life just the same in Oh Seung-uk’s The Shameless (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Korean Film Festival.

Once, Kim was the kept woman of a high-ranking VP at Jay Investments. Unfortunately, there were some betrayals and a number of bad investments. The upshot is Kim now owes hundreds of thousands to her creditors, including Jay Investments, but has little hope of paying off her debt through her toil in a hostess bar. To make matters worse, whenever Park Joon-kil comes calling, he usually takes on more debt in her name. Yet, she can never deny him.

Det. Jung is technically a cop, but his division is about as rogue as it gets. He still takes orders from his mentor, even though the senior officer was forced to resign by a corruption probe. Jung’s latest assignment is to find Park and cripple him in retribution for killing a rival mob associate. Knowing Park always returns to sponge off Kim, Jung tries to get close to her, posing as her lover’s former cellmate. Despite their frosty initial meeting, Kim soon hires Jung to be the club’s muscle. As they spend time together, some major sexual tension develops. There might even be some emotional substance to it, deep down somewhere in their malfunctioning psyches.

You can call Shameless a noir or a melodrama, but either way, Jeon Do-yeon’s performance as Kim is absolutely staggering. To get a sense of the impact of her work, try breaking ten boards with your head. They both sting like Hell, but the results will amaze you. This is the kind of meaty, complicated role Hollywood actresses over thirty-five would commit blue murder to land. Jeon nails it with a perfectly modulated, harrowingly realistic feat of screen acting.

Even the gruffly charismatic Park Sung-woong’s Park Joon-ki is swimming in Jeon’s wake. Nevertheless, Kim Nam-gil deserves credit for keeping up to any extent as the icily reserved, borderline sociopathic Det. Jung. However, Kim Min-jae makes a memorably odious villain in the person of Min Young-ki, who apparently works as Jay Investment’s chief liaison to gangsters and crooked coppers.

Jeon took best actress honors at Cannes for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, which was also pretty impressive, but her work as Kim Hye-kyung truly deserves a standing ovation. Even though it has been fifteen years since he last helmed a feature, Oh also definitely holds his end up. His striking sense of visual composition and blighted urban backdrops further elevate Shameless above and beyond the realm of conventional gangster melodrama. Highly recommended, The Shameless screens this Saturday (11/7) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the 2015 NYKFF.