Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Swindler

Our willingness to believe makes us vulnerable to conmen like the charlatan passing himself off as Father Kim, an exorcist for hire. He isn’t cheap, but anyone who thinks they need an exorcist will be desperate enough to pay—if they can. Unfortunately, Evangelical Christians are particularly willing to believe, according to screenwriter-director Yi Dong-hwan’s gritty con artist film Swindler, which screens during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC (formerly the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema).

He only turned up at his adopted mother’s funeral because he was hoping to get his hands on her bank book. When his adopted brother Namsik informs him she donated all her money to the church, he quickly loses interest. Constantly dodging debt collectors, he latches on to the phony exorcism scam and immediately starts earning big money. Business is good, so he takes on an assistant (or a deacon when he is in character), hiring an African migrant worker.

At first, the play-acting is fun, but the immigrant is quickly disillusioned. He is not reassured by their policy of only scamming the rich. In fact, it starts to look like they are deliberately turning their backs on the poor and less fortunate. Tragically, Park Yoon-hee will be the exception. In lieu of payment, “Father Kim” accepted “in kind” contributions—and you know what that means.

Although billed as a comedy, Swindler is a thoroughly depressing film. In many ways, it compares very directly with Koichiro Oyama’s His Bad Blood. Both films follow the exploits of an amoral grifter, neither of whom receives their traditional movie comeuppance. Yet, nobody in their right minds would want to live their solitary, irredeemable lives. These are highly moral films, but in unconventional ways. However, Swindler cannot match the heft and depth of Bad Blood.

Still, Yoo Hyeong-jun slow burns with Millennial entitlement as the predatory faker. He looks like a lamb, but he periodically bares the fangs of a wolf. Song Yeong-chang is probably the most recognizable cast-member, portraying the hypocritical pastor of a Prosperity Gospel-style church looking to recruit “Father Kim.” However, it is Lee Gyu-jeong who really haunts viewers as the wronged Park.

Swindler is intelligently written and features some laudable performances, but it is not a lot of fun to watch. Such a scathing view of human nature is only really compatible with real deal Puritanism. Recommended (with caveats) for fans of dark, religiously themed con artists films, like Leap of Faith, Swindler screens tonight (8/6), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.