Spies and secret missions in another massive blockbuster from director Choi Dong-hoon…
Choi Dong-hoon is unquestionably one of Korean cinema’s biggest hit makers, having been responsible for a string of huge box office smashes such as The Thieves, Tazza and Woochi. It’s no surprise then that his latest offering Assassination is another big budget mega-production, a thriller with an all-star cast including Gianna Jun (The Berlin File), Lee Jung-jae (The Thieves), Ha Jung-woo (Chronicles of a Blood Merchant), Cho Jin-woong (A Hard Day) and Oh Dal-su (The Pirates), set during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea back in the 1930s. The film was yet another triumph for Choi, being the first Korean film to pass the 10 million ticket sales barrier in 2015 and going on to rank as one of the year’s top money-makers and well as proving popular in China.
The film opens in 1933, with a group of resistance fighters being charged with assassinating a Japanese governor and his Korean supporters in Gyeongseong. Government agent Yeom Seok Jin (Lee Jung-jae) assembles a crack team for the task, consisting of sniper An Ok Yoon (Gianna Jun), jailbird Chu Sang Ok (Cho Jin-woong) and explosives expert and Hwang Deok-Sam (Choi Duk-moon), and sends them on their way, knowing that the mission is quite likely a suicide run. Unfortunately, the team has a traitor reporting their plans to the Japanese, and mercenary killer Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-wWoo) and his assistant Younggam (Oh Dal-su) are hired to take out An Ok and her comrades before they can strike.
Assassination certainly delivers as a blockbuster, its considerable budget having been put to effective use and the film having some amazing production values. Shot in Korea and China and boasting some convincing sets, the film looks great, and it’s hard not to be seduced by its lavish historical recreations and eye for details, giving it the authentic feel of an old fashioned Hollywood epic. Choi Dong-hoon is one of the country’s best directors when it comes to large scale action and he again shows himself a master at orchestrating spectacular set pieces, the film packing in a number of explosive and thrilling sequences as the battles between the agents and their many enemies intensify. Bloody and violent when it needs to be, the film has a sense of threat throughout, Choi not being averse to killing off sympathetic characters and managing to work in the odd shock here and there.
Frustratingly, Assassination isn’t quite so assured when it comes to its narrative, which from the very start is overstuffed and convoluted, frequently being hard to follow and leaving the viewer confused as to exactly what’s happening and why. Populated by a vast collection of characters, each with their own motivations and schemes, the plot shifts between them rapidly and often without any real sense of coherence, and it’s difficult even to simply switch off and go with the flow. This is a shame, as the actual premise itself is simple and straightforward, and there’s definitely the seed of a solid espionage yarn lurking at the heart of its labyrinth, and the film would have been far more gripping had Choi been able to keep things brisk and focused. As basically the same kind of mission-based ensemble piece the director has been so well known for in the past, the film doesn’t have the impact or sense of fun of The Thieves for example, and despite a strong cast on suitably steely form (Gianna Jun and Ha Jung-woo in particular), it’s hard not to feel distanced from events on screen.
Assassination still has a lot to offer, and for the most part entertains, quickening the pulse with its expertly handled action and air of danger and impressing with its opulent visuals and big name cast. Overlong, needlessly tangled and in serious need of judicious editing, it sadly lacks the slick skill at storytelling Choi Dong-hoon has shown in the past, and doesn’t achieve quite the same level of engagement as a result.