V.I.P. (2017) Korean Movie Review
In recent years, Korean cinema has been quite fascinated with the concept of serial killers or at least psychopaths. One could easily see this through the sheer number of movies and TV shows using these concepts in the age where they are even getting old in American entertainment; home-field you can say. At the same time, how these concepts are used is very shallow and vapid even for Hollywood standards. It is as if it is not really about serial killers and psychopaths but something else. I know that horror and to an extent, thriller movies lean more heavily on social commentary. However, there is still a certain degree of fascination towards these entities who are essentially horror movie monsters but wearing a skin of realism. Korean movies don’t really have that mindset. It is more about using them as a blatant vehicle for social commentary; very shallow and politically slanted commentary.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that this type of movie is bad on an entertainment level. It can still be a decent movie. A nice example of this is the Korean movie “V.I.P.” (2017) starring Jang Dong-Gun, Kim Myung-Min, Park Hee-Soon, and Lee Jong-Suk. It is a decently crafted serial killer/police drama/noir/spy movie which basically treats the serial killer as nothing more than a radioactive McGuffin.
Definition of McGuffin
An object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot
However, the messaging laid bare can become more distracting and irritating if you don’t buy into it as a person. And, from this, you can see that I don’t!
“V.I.P.” (2017) is basically a “cold war-ish” story set in the early 2010s about the Korean, South and North, characters who are either trying to bring to justice or protect a 20 something North Korea male serial killer who is a political defector and related to a disgraced high ranking North Korean official with a lot of important state secrets: slush funds filled with cash! This North Korean serial killer is played by pretty boy Lee Jong-Suk. Kim Myung-Min plays the South Korean detective trying to arrest the serial killer against the opposition from Jang Dong-Gun who is playing a Korean C.I.An agent. Veteran character actor Peter Stormare —he was in “John Wick: Chapter 2” (2017) recently — plays the “dirty” American C.I.A. agent who working the shenanigans behind the scene.
No Hannibal Lecter
Let’s get to Korean actor Lee Jong-Suk. This Korean actor, born in 1989, has had a decent career starting in the early 2010s. For a pretty face, his acting talents are relatively tolerable which means limited. In “V.I.P.” (2017), his facial features, which emote a sense of artificialness/fakeness, end up helping him sell his serial killer character to us, the audience. His character is no Hannibal Lecter or buffalo bill but works for the role the character had in this movie. The killer doesn’t need to carry the movie. Rather, it is the men around him who do most of the heavy lifting.
The serial killer in this movie is a mere plot device rather than a character. He is a McGuffin that the good, the bad, and the grey fight over. He has no agency in the plot. Imagine Jared Leto’s Joker from “Suicide Squad” (2016) as a spoil rich millennial without any real schemes or abilities but only an impulsive need to satisfy. By need, I mean murder and mutilate women. In other words, he is the lame irritating version of Joker! This is the prize the “actual” characters in “V.I.P.” (2017) is fighting over. He is like the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). But an evil object that kills the people who come too close. So… exactly like the Ark of the Covenant… face-melting aside.
The struggle of men
In essence, Lee Jong-Suk’s character is a distorted boy in the man’s body. The people fighting over him are men. This struggle between men is the core of the story of “V.I.P.” (2017). There are barely any female characters of significance in the movie other than as victims. The interesting fact here is that each of these men is from different movies. There is a detective/crime procedural thriller. This is where Kim Myung-min’s character comes from. There is a spy thriller about a grey area that intelligence professionals work in. Jang Dong-Gun’s character hails from this “tinker tailor soldier spy” land. Where is these characters’ destination? The bleak land of Noir movies. And not all will survive the journey especially the pure.
Park Hee-Soon’s character, who plays a disgraced North Korean police, is the one character without a well-defined movie genre of his own. If I were to point to a genre he is in, it would be the revenge thriller genre. However, “V.I.P.” (2017) does not really do much with him. Park Hee-Soon’s character could have been removed from the movie without undermining the movie as a whole. In fact, it would have been tighter. But then, the actual point of his character is not the story but to support the core message of the movie. This is a key flaw in the otherwise competently made movie. The directing, cinematography, acting is all above average and the movie succeeds in keeping the pace going at a consistent rate. So, worth one’s time and money.
In all movies, there is always at least a message / social commentary hiding in the subtext but with efforts put into distracting the audience from it. Like a magic trick. The scantily clad female magician’s assistant is there for a reason. Even “Fast and Furious” movies do this — hide messages deep into the subtext— with all the over the top car chases and action. For horror movies and, to a degree, thrillers, the monsters and killers are used to — whether this is intentional or not — hide its message. In “V.I.P.” (2017), this distraction is rather weak since the serial killer is NOT the “star” distraction of the movie. In other words, the magician’s assistant is not pretty enough.
So, what is the message?
Usually, this can be seen in the conflict between the anatomists and protagonists. With “V.I.P.” (2017), this conflict is “personal justice” side versus “personal Injustice” side. It is not copped versus killers. On the “personal justice” side, there are an aggressive “no shits giving” cop who is the heart of the movie. At the “personal Injustice” side, there is Veteran character actor Peter Stormare’s character as the real “bad” guy of the movie. He is willing to sacrifice personally for the national interest. And it is not even for Korean national interest but for American national interest. In between these two sides, there is Jang Dong-Gun’s character —a “henchmen” spy — who does the dirty work for the big bad but is given a chance at redemption. And you know how a redemption character arc goes. He is the real protagonist of this story once all is said.
One could say the message of “V.I.P.” (2017) is anti-national security that goes against personal liberty. Many self-reflective spy movies go for a similar point. However, “V.I.P.” (2017) is more specific. It is more specifically an anti-American version of that message. This point is hammered home by the movie opening and ending with two spies from South Korea and America: the characters played by Jang Dong-Gun and Peter Stormare. “V.I.P.” (2017) does a typical noir trope of starting at the end and the rest of the movie is catching the audience up to that point. By framing the movie as a conflict between these two spies, it states that North Korean is part of the Korean people and not a threat to South Korea. There is no need other than American greed for America being involved in Korean affairs; also can be described as providing protection and opening one’s markets. In addition, the current South Korean establishment is corrupt and placed in power by doing the bidding of America. Thus, South Koreans have to shed the shackles of American imperialism as shown by the protagonist of “V.I.P.” (2017). This is a typical Korean left-wing view of the Korean-American relationship.
You may think that a story about a North Korean serial killer is a weird context for this message. In doing so, the movie has to deal with the negative aspects of North Korea. The McGuffin of the movie is a North Korean serial killer with state secrets after all. The movie solves this by reframing the situation. Rather than focusing on the soil that birth this North Korean serial killer, it tries to focus the blame on specific North Koreans — those who are corrupted by outside / western influences — rather than on the regime as a whole. This is why Park Hee-Soon’s character, the North Korean cop, seems to be shoved into this movie even though it is not much for him to do. It would show North Koreans in too much of a negative light if the only major North Korean character in the movie was a serial killer. This is also why the North Korean serial Killer comes off more as cliché South Korean rich villain rather than someone from the North. He was corrupted by capitalism and Western culture. This is also in line with Korean leftist ideology.
Overall, “V.I.P.” (2017) is a solidly made movie with all aspects of the production being above average. This does not make “V.I.P.” (2017) special. There are many Korean movies that are above average. “V.I.P.” (2017) is also a heavily left-leaning Korean movie. However, if you watch Korean movies or movies in general, this should not be a surprise. It is a leftist world in movies and those are the only movies that make money in Korea. This does not make “V.I.P.” (2017) special. What makes it special is that, rather unintentionally, the movie seems to have shown its hand too much. While shooting for a “Noir-ish” grey zone, the movie’s world view became too obvious by Lee Jong-Suk’s serial killer character failed to provide enough camouflage for the ideas of the movie. Thus, it is pretty informative regarding a Korean leftist world view. And that does make this movie special!