After a storming start with “Friend” but a long time in the outfield with big-budget doozies “Champion” and “Typhoon,” writer-helmer Gwak Gyeong-taek (aka K.T. Kwak) partly returns to form with “A Love.” Glossy widescreen portrait of a tough guy’s grand amour and rise through the criminal ranks is smooth entertainment, but lacks the emotional power and scriptwriting smarts of the best South Korean gangland yarns – like last year’s superb “A Dirty Carnival” – needed to rise above the pack. Asian-centered fests and some specialty ancillary look to be the pic’s best bets in the West.
Locally, the pic has performed very well since its Sept. 19 release, with 2 million admissions in its first two weeks, giving “The Bourne Ultimatum” a run for its money. Presence of hunk Ju Jin-mo (“Musa”) in the lead role has been a plus.
Opening reel succinctly sets up the story arc, with new boy in the class Chae In-ho standing up for a girl against some tyke bullies. She invites him to her birthday party, and In-ho’s heart is lost.
Flash-forward to when In-ho (now played by Ju) is a college judo champ and, in a back alley, takes on feared student badass Sang-woo (Im Seong-gyu). After beating the bejesus out of each other, the two bond, and when troubled Sang-woo and his nutty mom (Lee Hwi-hyang) kill themselves, In-ho swears to protect Sang-woo’s younger sister, Mi-ju (Park Shi-yeon), forever. She happens to be the same girl he fell for at primary school.
There’s plenty of dramatic material in the first half, as In-ho and his buddy Nol-bu (Im Hyeon-seong) become involved in Busan’s gangster world. Second half follows In-ho some seven years later, in the present, when he’s the trusted bodyguard of big-company chairman-cum-godfather Yu (Ju Hyeon). But the sudden reappearance of Mi-ju, in a surprising role, tests In-ho’s loyalty to Yu, resulting in a lot of spilled blood.
Dialogue does the job but, unlike writer-director Yu Ha’s “Carnival,” adds no more; and though Ju Jin-mo more than fills the screen physically and makes a convincing fighter, he doesn’t reach deep down into the character of In-ho; ditto Park as the winsome Mi-ju. Supports are much more flavorsome, with veteran Ju Hyeon bringing some heft to the story as the kindly but ruthless Yu, Im Hyeon-seong adding some lightness as In-ho’s dumpy friend, and Kim delivering sheer nastiness as In-ho’s nemesis.
Score by Yun Min-hwa overdoes the romantic moments, but other tech credits are tops, as in all Gwak’s pics.