An ice-cool yuppie killer and a foul-mouthed, loose-cannon cop go the full 15 rounds of psychological mano a mano in “Public Enemy,” a carefully calibrated mix of character comedy and drama that spins a taut web around the viewer. Terrific performances by a large, top-quality cast, and a script that delivers in both structure and content, make this an early highlight in what looks like another strong year for South Korean picdom. Since opening Jan. 25, “Enemy” has hauled in 3 million admissions (some $12 million) nationwide, though its lack of action and genre elements make it more suitable for remake offshore than as a theatrical earner.
Pic is the first directorial outing in four years by Kang Woo-seok, producer boss of powerful conglom Cinema Service, who’s almost a household name in Korea but hardly known outside East Asia. Kang has never courted festival kudos, though “Enemy” has potential in that arena. An early reviver of the local scene with his smash comedies “Two Cops” (1993) and “Two Cops 2” (1996), Kang started to show a broader grasp of character drama with the “Adam’s Rib”-like “Bedroom & Courtroom” (1998), and the lessons he learned there have come to fruition in “Public Enemy.”
In its cuss-heavy, straight-faced humor and its setting amid the rough-and-tumble of police life, pic has more than a few echoes of Kang’s “Cops” movies, but the scope here is much wider.
Opening with real-life police training scenes and a voiceover extolling the high public duties of the country’s law officers, pic soon pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet as the voice gruffly notes: “I’ve been a cop for 12 years … and I don’t do any of that shit.”
The speaker is Kang Cheol-jung (Seol Gyeong-gu), a scruffy former boxer who loves a good punch-up with crims and is first seen after accepting a payoff of a large bag of coke. Internal Affairs is on his case but can’t pin anything on him so far.
Film’s leisurely setup continues as the other lead is introduced: Ruthless fund manager Jo Gyu-hwan (Lee Seong-jae) aggressively pleasures himself in the shower before kissing his devoted wife and daughter goodbye as he leaves for another day’s work of nurturing and destroying companies.
Pic springs an initial shock in the third reel, as Jo reveals the full force of his paranoia beneath the designer-yuppie exterior. But as the film reverts to more light character shtick, you begin to wonder where this is all leading.
Then, 45 minutes in, the threads start to connect with a vengeance: One rainy night, Jo, furious that a lucrative personal investment is being derailed by his father’s philanthropy, viciously stabs both his parents to death. Kang, on a nearby stakeout, literally bumps into Jo as he leaves the crime scene — in a sequence that mixes humor and chills to powerful effect — and when the cop later puts two and two together, the epic game between the two is afoot.
But what could easily have become a simple thriller develops as a character study of a gifted but terminally anti-establishment cop who is unknowingly looking for personal redemption. Kang’s relentless pursuit of Jo leads him to be busted down to a traffic cop. And then a tiny clue left by Jo gives Kang the chance he’s been looking for.
“Public Enemy” bears all the hallmarks of the best of current Korean cinema: a strong central concept that’s followed through in a well-worked script that doesn’t fall apart in the third act. Kang’s character is revealed not through interior scenes of psychological angst but through his work and colleagues.
Pic is especially rich in supporting roles — a punk (Yu Hae-jin) who advises the police on knife techniques, a dogged Internal Affairs investigator (Lee Jung-hun), a put-upon informer (Sung Ji-ru) or a cocky, pint-sized hoodlum (Lee Mun-shik, from “Hi, Dharma!”). Best of all is Kang’s hard-assed boss, Oem, in a wonderful perf by legit actor Kang Shin-il.
As the two leads, Seol and Lee are well matched. Best known abroad as the lead in “Peppermint Candy,” Seol looks a tad unweathered for the role of an ex-boxer but compensates with a sometimes ferocious performance as the rough, gruff Kang. Lee, who’s honed a Mr. Cool persona in both “Attack the Gas Station!” and “Kick the Moon,” is creepily assured as the Korean Psycho, a close relative of Patrick Bateman.
Tech credits are pro throughout, with clean lensing by Kim Seong-bok that doesn’t impinge on the character play. Music is sparingly used throughout.