Splattered with Korean aesthetics of troglodytic violence and blighted by irredeemable characters, Kim Sung-soo’s “Asura: The City of Madness” is a stygian crime thriller that casts a jaundiced eye at South Korean regional politics. The cesspool of venal humanity does exert grisly fascination, and those who can contain their moral disgust will become invested in the antihero (Jung Woo-sung, “Cold Eyes”) — a crooked cop caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Following it’s festival debut at Toronto, the picture should pound its way into Asian genre niches.
In Indian mythology, Asuras are demigods consumed by negative passions, perpetually fighting each other. This couldn’t be a better allegory for the protagonists, whose thirst for money and power turn the world into a living hell. The film expands the trend set by nationwide hits “The Unjust,” “Inside Men,” and “A Violent Prosecutor,” which depict politicians and lawmakers as more thuggish than gangsters. As helmed by action veteran Kim, ( “Musa the Warrior,””Flu”) “Asura” is grubbier and more pessimistic than those movies. It’s also a dark rebuttal to Kim’s ’90s gangster films “Beat” and “City of Rising Sun,” which glorified brotherhood among small-time hoods, and propelled Jung to stardom.
The film’s sole locale is the fictional city of Annam, which, in an apt establishing shot, recalls a dusty favela. However, with the evacuation of the city’s U.S. Army base, its shantytown is marked for re-development. Avaricious mayor Park Sun-bae (Hwang Jung-min) wants the lion’s share of profits. His rivals, of course, won’t stand for it, waging a turf war on all fronts.
At the center of the maelstrom is the self-demeaning Detective Han Do-kyung (Jung), who acts as the mayor’s enforcer. When he botches up an order to dispatch a claimant who filed a lawsuit against Park, he’s blackmailed by prosecutor Kim Cha-in (Kwon Do-won, “The Wailing”) and his special investigation squad to bite the hand that feeds him. Not that Kim is a crusader of justice: he’s just beholden to his superior, Oh, who’s in the pockets of Park’s enemies. In fact, Kim couldn’t be a smarmier embodiment of chicanery, dangling a fake payout in front of Han to entice him, then resorting to torture when all else fails.
Han’s vacillation is not swayed by conscience, but rather by uncertainty over who’s more dangerous to betray. His decision is complicated by the fact that his wife, who’s hospitalized for a terminal illness, is Park’s half-sister. He doesn’t love her, but he’s pricked by guilt over his own heartlessness. Since he has neither morals or sentimentality, who he sides with remains unpredictable till the end, providing the film with jittery tension throughout.
In a sardonic puncturing of hierarchical Korean mentor-protege protocol, an abrasive dynamic unfolds between Han and Sun-mo (Ju Ji-hun), a rookie cop who gradually edges his senior out to become Park’s right-hand man. Han’s futile macho rage at being dissed is exacerbated by the upstart’s reckless gambits to impress the boss, intensifying the film’s dog-eat-dog hysteria.
Though Park fans their rivalry like baiting roosters in a cockfight, his deviousness is not enough to fend off his opponents or push through his money-grubbing schemes. As his corruption and felonious deeds come home to roost, he blows his top like the other protagonists, pushing everyone over the edge in a way that justifies the title “City of Madness.” The Grand Guignol finale, set with morbid irony in a funeral parlor, provides the kind of Grindhouse catharsis that’s inevitable, if unoriginal.
To paint its sordid picture of Korean officialdom, Kim’s directorial style is as blunt and effective as the way in which Han’s stooge intimidates the claimant: by knocking his teeth out with a hammer. Park’s vulgarity and cockiness are on display in a scene in which he struts around with his bare buttocks exposed while negotiating with a gang leader. Han’s stress and rage include his constant bombardment of cussing and outbreaks of violence. When he has a meltdown, the catastrophic multiple car-crash he sets in motion is a flaming, nerve-jangling spectacle that amplifies his spiritual wreckage.
As Kim and his cronies tighten the screws on Han while his usefulness to Park dwindles, Han’s complete lack of options sum up the tragedy of a small-time player in an evil, broken world. If one feels a flicker of pity for him, it’s due in no small part to Jung’s willingness to ditch his usual cool-dude pose. With eyes hollowed out like coal pits and face puckered with world-weariness, Jung conveys the soul’s damnation with electrifying physical presence.
While this film may mark Jung’s transition from star to character actor, Hwang, who’s been at the top of his game in a succession of hits like “Ode to My Father,” “Veteran” and “The Violent Prosecutor” shows signs of slacking. Although the versatile actor would never phone in a performance, there’s no sophistication or shading in Park’s vileness.
Tech credits are solid if devoid of flair. Production designer Jang Geun-yeong favors gritty realism over of stylish noir, supplying run-down locations where the dirt and odor seem to cling to the characters. Lee Jae-jin’s score employs a low thrumming bass of hissing discord.