Kim Ki-duk must have had fun writing “Poongsan,” an action-romancer about a South Korean guy whose ability to smuggle people and objects out of North Korea gets him tangled up with the secret service. Helmed by Kim’s former assistant director Juhn Jai-hong (whose debut, “Beautiful,” preemed at Berlin in 2008), the pic plays like an enjoyable Cold War-themed TV pilot featuring a mute protag of uncertain political persuasion whose physical endurance puts him in the near-superhero category. Budget constraints are apparent, furthering the sense of a smallscreen caper; fests and ancillary should get some traction.
Poongsan is the name of a cigarette brand from North Korea and the nickname of a mysterious smuggler (Yun Gye-sang) hired to get people and things across the Demilitarized Zone from North to South. When he’s caught by secret-service agents from the South, they decide to test his claim of getting from Pyongyang safely across the border in three hours. His mission: to bring back In-oak (Kim Gyu-ri), the g.f. of a recent high-level defector (Kim Jong-su) who won’t fully cooperate with intelligence until she’s at his side.
The journey is fraught with conflict, but unsurprisingly by the time they’ve had their adventure — under three hours — her old b.f. isn’t looking as appealing, following Poongsan’s impressive display of brawn and wherewithal. The former lover, an arrogant, manipulative type, senses something’s changed in her and colludes with South Korean intelligence (not so intelligent) to have the guy tortured on suspicion of being a North Korean agent. However, Poongsan’s talents are needed, and the DMZ gets crossed more times than the Ventura freeway, resulting in kidnappings, torture and a little duplicity.
The sides aren’t so easy to distinguish, and it gets confusing trying to figure out who’s doing what to whom and why, but through it all, our man Poongsan retains his mute appeal even under extreme duress (though he does scream out in pain). Given that this is a Kim Ki-duk-scripted pic, the action scenes are leavened with humor, and there’s a certain early 1980s charm in seeing the subtitled exclamations of “You commie bastards!” The middle unquestionably sags a bit, but the energy level of the last quarter barrels forward toward an enjoyable climax.
Yun’s charisma and physicality provide a pleasingly ambiguous anchor to the ensuing chaos; it’s easy to imagine him as the star of a TV series based on the Poongsan character. Production values reflect the tight finances, making use of noir-like tricks such as limited space and plenty of black shadow around the edges. Digital lensing looks cold and hard on the bigscreen.