“Hollywood” has become synonymous among film buffs for big-budget action films. And the association is not always a flattering one.
But audiences around the world have always enjoyed a good romp at the movies. While U.S. exports still command a fair chunk of the international box office, other countries are turning out their own slick action blockbusters at an increasing clip.
In the vanguard of this trend is South Korea, where homegrown action films now gross in the $100 million range and dominate ticket sales. But American audiences seldom get the chance to see these films, and that’s a shame, because they are a lot of fun — more fun, in fact, than all but a few of the formulaic “blockbusters” our own movie factory tends to churn out these days.
Local film lovers have the chance this week to not only to see one of the best recent popcorn action flicks from South Korea, but also discuss the film with one of that nation’s leading critics and a film theory professor.
“Veteran,” a 2015 cop action-comedy from writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan, will screen at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the Middleton Auditorium in UofL’s Strickler Hall. The over two-hour film — really, it doesn’t seem that long — will be followed by a Q&A with critic Darcy Paquet, founder of koreanfilm.org, and Molly Kim, who teaches Korean film history and film theory at the University of Suwon.
Both Paquet and Kim are alumni of Indiana University, and Tuesday’s free screening of “Veteran” is a joint project of IU’s Institute for Korean Studies, UofL’s Department for Asian Studies, and the Film Liberation Unit, a student-led group that presents screenings at UofL’s Floyd Theater, among other venues.
“Veteran” is a great primer for viewers unfamiliar with the South Korean blockbuster action cinema. The “blockbuster action” is a key distinction here, particularly for movie buffs whose impressions have previously been molded by hard-boiled crime films such as Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003) or Bong Joon-ho’s elegant monster-metaphor “The Host” (2006).
“Veteran” is just pure adrenaline, with a thick icing of spry comedy. If you go into it expecting a sharp police procedural or gripping drama, you’re looking in the wrong place. Ryoo’s films do address themes of corporate corruption and social inequity, and “Veteran” is no different — but it tackles these issues with about the same level of nuance as “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989) takes on racism. It’s bad — kick it in the face.
Hwang Jung-min is perfect as a wise-cracking police detective who will stop at nothing to get justice for the little guy. His easy charm brings a relatable humanity that makes the entire film tick — if you haven’t seen any of Hwang’s leading roles, it’s well worth the effort to track them down. He’s truly one of the most engaging “movie stars” working right now.
A sparkling 15-minute opening sequence has literally nothing to do with the movie’s main plot — we mentioned it’s over two hours, right? — but sets the tone for the entire film. Hwang and his team run down a gang of car thieves in a shipping yard, executing intricate martial arts moves (Hwang is not a trained martial artist, but he does many of his fight pieces, with an assist from deft film editing).
The cops also get stuck as they try to squeeze between shipping containers and boink themselves on the head with slapstick aplomb. The criminals and cops both get winded after a while, and one bad guy just goes ahead and gets in a squad car instead of continuing his pointless flight.
The action is brisk and elegantly staged, and also largely bloodless, almost entirely gunless and often comedic. A room full of cops roughing up a suspect amounts to the guy getting whacked on the head with three-ring binders. Even depictions of absolutely horrific acts — and “Veteran” does go there from time to time — are immediately diffused by somebody getting randomly kicked in the face.
Hwang is opposed by Yoo Ah-in as a spoiled, sociopathic corporate heir who thinks he’s above the law — aka, the most objectively awful person you’ve ever seen. Seriously, bad guys in ’80s Schwarzenegger flicks have more depth than this creep. When we first meet him, he smashes food into his party guests’ faces, just to show he can get away with it. And Yoo is gleefully perfect in the role.
Everyone involved in “Veteran” knows exactly what they are offering — a highly stylized, kinda formulaic but perfectly executed action flick that has a lot more in common with “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984) than hard-boiled Asian crime cinema. Some criticism of the film notes that its structure is predictable, or that it fails to fully explore its underlying criticism of the corporate caste system.
Yeah, but so what? It’s a blockbuster and just enormously fun.
“Veteran” topped the South Korean box office in 2015, beating out Western imports such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World.” To date, it still ranks fourth in all-time earnings, selling about 13.4 million admissions. (It currently sits behind a big budget naval battle showcase, an effects-heavy fantasy and “Ode to My Father,” a historical drama starring Hwang.)
By comparison, the top-grossing film in the U.S. for 2018, “Black Panther,” sold about 76 million tickets domestically in a country with about six times the population as South Korea.
So, “Veteran” is a big movie, and it’s well worth checking out, particularly for viewers who yearn for the days of lighthearted action romps. And it may be a point of entry to a film industry that’s creating a lot of amazing work.
Tuesday’s screening at UofL is free to the public.