A cop gets entangled with a bar madam he uses as bait to hunt down a murderer in “The Shameless,” a stylish film noir that owes its mood of slow-burning heartbreak to the masterful performance of female lead Jeon Do-yeon. Helmer-scribe Oh Seung-uk, an accomplished screenwriter who contributed to the first Korean Wave, evokes the futile longings of low-life misfits in a seedy world of corrupt police and dirty corporate businessmen in coolly executed, well-calibrated style. A mellow pleasure to be slowly savored, this polished work should be welcomed at festivals and will slot nicely into Euro arthouse niches.
Not exactly prolific, Oh has taken 14 years to deliver this follow-up to his helming debut, the doppelganger gangster thriller “Kilimanjaro.” But his strengths as a writer, as comfortable with genre (“H”) as he is with subtle romance (“Christmas in August”), are seamlessly combined in “The Shameless,” which begins as a hardboiled crimer but pans out as an elegy for jaded souls too weak to seize love or opportunity in a pitiless world. Alternating between the matter-of-fact brutality one expects of Korean cinema and a furtive sensuality, the yarn is grounded in a recognizably gritty setting while the protagonists’ motives remain tantalizingly unfathomable, even to themselves.
Sulky, clock-punching cop Jung Jae-gon (Kim Nam-gil) is handed a standard-issue murder case where the suspect, Park Jun-gil (Park Sung-woong), is a drifter who was up to no good even before this fiasco hit. The situation becomes more complicated, however, when Jae-gon’s former superior, who’s lost his badge after a corruption scandal, turns up to call in a favor. The vice president of Jay Investment, who once employed Jun-gil and was embezzled by him, wants to exploit the suspect’s present crisis to settle old scores, and offers Jae-gon $5,000 to shoot him in the leg and cripple him during the arrest.
Jae-gon tries to take the moral high ground, saying that what cops fear most is not dying on the job but “when we cannot be distinguished from them (criminals).” But perhaps out of grudging deference to his ex-superior for having bailed him out in the past, but more likely out of laziness and weak resolve, the cop acquiesces.
Jae-gon easily tracks down his lead, Jun-gil’s g.f., Kim Hye-kyung (Jeon), and latches onto by her posing as Jun-gil’s blood brother during a previous spell in prison. The onetime squeeze of the Jay Investment VP, now a madam at dingy bar called Macau, Hye-kyung seems to have stepped into a quicksand of debt and social decline. Still, she doggedly goes around with Jae-gon, trying to raise money to bail Jun-gil out.
If Jae-gon’s reluctant collusion with crooked cops, shady businessman and thugs reflects the moral ambiguity of a tough society like Korea, then the complex feelings triggered as he and Hye-kyung spend time together hint at the erratic mysteries of the heart. Just as Jae-gon pursues his unethical mission with neither ambition nor genuine guilt, Oh makes it intriguingly unclear whether Hye-kyung’s efforts to help her up-to-no-good b.f. springs from love, stoicism, fear or a hazy need to find some purpose in her tawdry existence.
As the world-weary pair comb through the city’s sleaziest nightspots and grungiest neighborhoods, they lose sight of their initial objective and find unvoiced but tangibly felt comfort in each other’s company. Their physical tension brews at a deliberately measured yet in no way languorous pace, culminating in the last half-hour in an achingly sensuous scene on the floor of Hye-kyung’s apartment, a quintessentially Korean situation triggered by her suggestion: “Let’s start the morning with a drink.”
Commandingly conceived along the lines of classic noir and amour-fou archetypes, the protags are nonetheless drawn with sharply defined personalities. As their intimacy exposes their loneliness and vulnerability, their actions send them hurtling toward an end that is no less devastating for being so inevitable.
Jeon’s Hye-kyung presents a face that time hasn’t been at all kind to, and her indolent gait suggests that staying sober and getting out of bed are the two great Sisyphean chores of life. Yet, whenever she’s animated by flashes of desire or amused by trivial matters, her bone-bred voluptuousness is reignited. Jeon demonstrates her exquisite mastery of looks, voice and body language in a delightfully built-up episode, in which she and Jae-gong collect a bar tab from a douchebag customer. Leaning over him like a purring lynx, she comes off as irresistibly seductive yet formidably predatory.
As Jeon’s counterpart in this unpredictable rondo, Kim gracefully takes the backseat, allowing his co-star room for more dramatic expression. Although the emotions he evinces are less complex than hers, he brings brooding intensity to his later moments, and conveys his character’s uncertainty and ultimately fatal cowardice. Park Sung-woong delivers the necessary gruffness, as do other supporting actors playing Jay Investment minions.
Craft contributions are well thought out, conveying a consistently shady mood. Lenser Kang Kuk-hyun works in harmony with lighting director Bae Il-hyuck to veil Seoul’s suburban Sungnam district and Inchon in a dusky, permanent-twilight hue, reflecting the protagonists’ day-for-night routines while also capturing the sense of an emotional wasteland. Cho Young-wuk’s light piano score and occasional jazz riffs serve as grace notes for the grim story, with its regular outbursts of hardcore violence. Two of Korea’s top editors, siblings Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum, maintain a modulated but unfaltering pace that allows viewers to get under the characters’ skin.