You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Believer’

Lee Hae-young's remake of Johnnie To's "Drug War" (2012) is short on character analysis but long on stylishly executed action.

Lee Hae-young
Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk
Release Date:
Jun 8, 2018

2 hours 3 minutes

Johnnie To’s gritty mainland crime epic “Drug War” (2012) is given a slick and mostly effective South Korean re-tooling in “Believer.” Centered on a dogged cop obsessed with flushing out a mysterious drug kingpin, this pacy outing is loaded with colorful characters but fails to deliver the emotional intensity it promises. The first feature by director and co-writer Lee Hae-young since his classy period thriller “The Silenced” (2015), “Believer” has notched two million admissions since its May 22 local release. An entertaining action-thriller accessible for non-Korean viewers, “Believer” ought to perform well when it opens June 8 on 23 North American screens.

Action-packed but free of the extreme brutality that sometimes hinders the commercial prospects of Korean genre films in offshore markets, “Believer” borrows just the basics of To’s film. While faithfully recreating some of the original’s most famous sequences, Lee and female co-writer Chung Seo-kyung (“Thirst,” 2009) have significantly altered plot and character details elsewhere. One of the major talking points is the remake’s low-key denouement, which departs radically from To’s all-guns-blazing finale.

Always reliable playing cops or crooks, Cho Jin-woong (“A Hard Day,” 2014) cuts the right figure as Jo Won-ho, a hard-bitten narco squad detective on the trail of Mr. Lee, a drug lord whom it seems no one has ever laid eyes on. After two fruitless years on the case, the situation hits rock bottom when a troubled teenage informant, Soo-jung (Keum Sae-rok), is murdered by Mr. Lee’s henchmen. The detective’s remorse over Soo-jung’s death — “she was like a niece to me,” he says — provides a strong emotional thread in the film’s early sections, but is largely forgotten thereafter.

Things heat up nicely when an explosion at a Seoul drug lab wipes out most of the bigwigs in Mr. Lee’s cartel. Narrowly surviving the blast is Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryung), a deliciously cold-blooded operator who waltzes into police headquarters like she owns the joint and gives Won-ho vital information before promptly dropping dead. But the real catch from the lab explosion is Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol), a low-level gofer who agrees to help Won-ho locate Mr. Lee.

The most gripping sequences involve Won-ho going undercover as a member of Mr. Lee’s organization. This brings him into contact with Ha-rim, a vicious Chinese-Korean drug boss played memorably by Kim Joo-hyuk (“Yourself and Yours,” 2016) in his final role before his tragic death in October 2017. That’s just the start of an exciting series of switcheroos and deceptions that requires Won-ho to also impersonate Ha-rim in front of Sun-chang (Park Hae-jun), an extremely nasty lieutenant in Mr. Lee’s gang.

Though Won-ho’s search for the real Mr. Lee becomes overstuffed with too many villains, they’re an entertaining bunch. Jin Seo-yeon is dynamite as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s alarmingly eccentric girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won snarls effectively as Brian, the quietly crazed son of a dead industrialist. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister drug cooks who banter amusingly in obscene sign language when the action moves to their isolated lab.

Where “Believer” comes up short is in the crucial central relationship between Won-ho and Rak. A tense, high-stakes scenario such as this is ripe for a probing examination of cop-informer psychology. The screenplay settles instead for Rak’s mild taunts about how Won-ho can’t succeed without him, and repetitious scenes of the detective slapping Rak around for allegedly withholding information.

“Believer” may be more impressive around the edges than at its core, but that doesn’t prevent it from delivering a pretty solid two hours of action and suspense that’s muscularly directed by Lee and stylishly shot by Kim Tae-kyung (“The Throne,” 2015). Punching the narrative along is a terrific, predominantly electronic, score by ace composer Dalpalan (“The Wailing,” 2015). All other technical work is spot on.


Film Review: ‘Believer’

Reviewed online in Adelaide, June 5, 2018. Running time: 123 MIN. (Original title: “Seokjeon”)

Production: (South Korea) A Well Go USA Entertainment (U.S.) Next Entertainment World (South Korea) release of a Cineguru Kidarient, Next Entertainment World presentation of a Yong Film production. (International sales: Contents Panda, Seoul.)  Producers: Syd Lim, Jung Hee-soon. Executive producer: Young Kim.

Crew: Director: Lee Hae-young. Screenplay: Lee, Chung Seo-kyung. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Kim Tae-kyung. Editor: Yang Jin-mo. Music: Dalpalan.

With: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Cha Seoung-won, Park Hae-jun, Kang Seung-hyun, Kim Sung-ryung, Jung Ga-ram, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jin Seo-yeon, Keum Sae-rok.

Music By: Dalpalan

More Film


    Korea Box Office: 'Rhapsody' Reclaims Top Spot, Beats ‘Spider-Verse’

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” reclaimed top place at the South Korean box office, overtaking “Default,” after spending two weekends in second place. The Fox release earned $4.38 million from 554,000 admissions for a total of $61.0 million from 7.94 million admissions. In its seventh weekend of release “Rhapsody” accounted for 27% of the weekend box office. CJ [...]

  • China Box Office: ‘Totoro’ Triumphant as

    China Box Office: ‘Totoro’ Triumphant as ‘Aquaman’ Defies Newcomers

    “Aquaman” comfortably dominated the Chinese box office for the second weekend. It dropped 47% in its second week, but again accounted for the majority of all cinema business nationwide. The watery superhero movie earned $53.9 million, according to data from exhibition and distribution consultancy Artisan Gateway. It played on some 25,000 screens, or nearly half [...]

  • Aquaman 2018

    'Aquaman' Crosses $250 Million at Foreign Box Office

    Things are going swimmingly at the box office for “Aquaman” as the Warner Bros.’ superhero flick hits another major milestone overseas. James Wan’s take on the ruler of the seven seas just passed $250 million internationally, and a weekend haul of $126.4 million from 43 territories brings its foreign tally to $261.3 million. “Aquaman” — [...]

  • Mortal Engines

    'Mortal Engines' to Lose More Than $100 Million at Box Office

    “Mortal Engines,” a steampunk fantasy adventure, is also an epic flop. With a budget of just over $100 million and tens of millions in global marketing costs, executives at rival studios estimate that the movie will lose upwards of $100 million. Some even project that number could float to more than $125 million. “Mortal Engines” [...]

  • Thierry Frémaux, José Luis Rebordinos Honored

    Thierry Frémaux, José Luis Rebordinos Named Honorary Argentine Academy Members

    BUENOS AIRES — In a ceremony just before Friday’s prize announcements at Ventana Sur, Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux and José Luis Rebordinos, director of the San Sebastian Festival, were named honorary members of Argentina’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in a new move for the Academy, out through by its new president, Bernardo [...]

  • Nona

    Film Review: 'Nona'

    Twenty years and 12 features down the line, it’s still hard to peg the directorial sensibility of Michael Polish, with or without the presence of brother Mark as frequent co-writer and actor. His output has been all over the place, from early Lynchian quirkfests to the very middle-of-the-road inspirational dramedy “The Astronaut Farmer,” not to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content