Saturday, July 01, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Ordinary Person

Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a. “The Rostov Ripper” or “Citizen X,” murdered at least fifty-two people between 1978 and 1990 in the USSR, before finally facing prosecution in 1992. At least South Korea’s militarist Fifth Republic was more efficient. When they discover a serial killer striking throughout the country they quickly close in on him. They will also provide a spare for public pillory when the real perp dies prematurely. The frame-up job will fall to Kang Sung-jin. He was chosen for his patriotism and righteousness, but he becomes a problem for his co-conspirators for the same reasons in Kim Bong-han’s Ordinary Person (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Kang was wounded fighting in Vietnam so no commie lover is he. Nor is he an ACLU type. When necessary, he is perfectly willing and able to rough up a suspect. Due to a combination of diligent and dirty police work, he collars Kim Tae-sang, who really did commit one murder—one and only one. Conveniently, Kim’s low-I.Q. and marginalized social status make him a perfect patsy to take the fall. Kang even believes it for a while, until his muckraking former classmate Chu Jae-jin starts pointing out obvious inconsistencies. However, at this point Kang has grown used to accepting favors from the intelligence service, including a critical leg operation for his young son.

Of course, Chu is not the sort to back down, so we know what that will get him. However, it will also reawaken Kang’s quixotic passion for truth and justice. Unfortunately, nobody fights dirtier than Choi Gyu-nam, the up-and-coming intelligence planner quarterbacking the operation. He’s simply scum.

So again, South Koreans are just super-happy with the current state of their body politic, as we can glean from the subconscious evidence buried within their films. Be that as it may, the paranoia and cynicism actually makes the first two acts pretty darned tight, tense, and intriguing. The problem comes when Kang starts making really ill-advised decisions, solely to stimulate Choi’s villainy and put the corrupt copper in the mood for payback.

Despite the late innings collapse, Son Hyun-joo is rock-solid throughout as the craggy copper Kang. Likewise, Jang Hyuk will have viewers smelling sulfur whenever he is on-screen as the sinister Choi. The often shticky Kim Sang-ho delivers a career-best (so far), as the crusading Chu. It is also great fun to watch manly Jeong Man-sik do his thing as the more likably corrupt intelligence chief, Shin Yong-soo.

You are never wasting your time watching cats like Son and Jeong in a dark noir. If Ordinary were releasing in theaters during a slow week, it would easily be your best bet, but there is just an embarrassment of riches at NYAFF. By all means, go if you already have a ticket, but if you just want to check out a Korean film, you should first opt for The Truth Beneath, Fabricated City, or Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned. Recommended in its proper pecking order, Ordinary Person screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.