The game of Go gets a dangerous makeover in Jo Beom-gu’s thriller…
The traditional board game Go, known for its focus on philosophy and strategy, might not sound like the most obvious jumping off point for an action thriller, though in The Divine Move it provides the unlikely entry point into a dangerous world of murder and revenge. The film was directed by Jo Beom-gu, who last helmed the amusingly over the top motorbike thriller Quick in 2011, and he here applies the same kind of slick, fast-paced approach to ensure things are kept lively. The film was both a commercial and critical success in Korea, pulling in more than 3.5 million admissions and winning various nominations at the Grand Bell and Blue Dragon Awards, boosted by an all-star cast that includes Jung Woo-sung (Cold Eyes), Lee Bum-soo (Death Bell), legendary veteran Ahn Sung-ki, Kim In-kwon (Masquerade), Ahn Kil-kang (The City of Violence), Lee Si-young (Killer Toon) and Choi Jin-hyuk (The Heirs).
The film opens with Jung Woo Sung as nerdy Go player Tae Seok, who ends up in jail after being framed for the murder of his brother during a crooked high stakes match. Emerging from prison now blessed with a rugged physique and formidable fighting skills, not to mention criminal connections, he sets in motion a revenge plan, enlisting the help of a ragtag bunch of Go players with suitably descriptive names, including Drinking Christ (Ahn Sung-ki), Cheater (Kim In-kwon) and Carpenter (Ahn Kil-kang). It quickly becomes clear that they’re playing a very dangerous game indeed, their opponent Killer (Lee Bum-soo) being a ruthless psychopath only too willing to use violence to get his way, and when Tae Seok starts to develop feelings for a young woman called Navel (Lee Si-young) who works for his enemy, matters get even more complicated.
It’s certainly no mean feat to produce a commercially-friendly blockbuster based on something as slow and thoughtful as Go, though Jo Beom-gu successfully pulls it off, and The Divine Move is arguably one of the better Korean thrillers of 2014. Key to this is the way in which Jo constantly ups the stakes and thus the tension throughout, combining suspense and character drama to great effect. Intelligent without being ponderous and packing in a steady stream of twists, the script never gets too caught up in Go jargon or niceties, making sure that the film is equally accessible to aficionados and newcomers alike. Similarly there’s a fair amount of philosophy dropped in along the way, enough so to give the film an impression of depth, and while it’s essentially a pretty daft affair, Jo manages to keep the viewer on-board and to distract from some of its sillier elements and ham-fisted black and white morality and symbolism.
The high action quotient also helps, and as he did with Quick, Jo proves himself a deft hand when it comes to set pieces, through in lots of brawls and fight scenes. The film is fairly violent and hard-edged, with a handful of torture sequences thrown in for good measure, and this adds a welcome air of danger. Whilst there’s nothing particularly creative or original about this film this respect, Jo directs with enthusiasm and efficiency, and both injects a little style and keeps things exciting and moving along at a pleasingly brisk pace.
The film’s cast are all on good form, and their performances go some way to giving the material a lift and an extra dash of class. Though the characters are all the same kind of stereotypes suggested by their Go names, the script uses them well, and they’re a likeable bunch and easy to either root for or despise. Jung Woo-sung is suitably suave and charismatic in the lead, never looking terribly bothered by any of the carnage his revenge quest entails, and Lee Bum-soo is amusingly evil as the villain of the piece, with an impressively sadistic streak that makes for a few unpredictably nasty moments. Unsurprisingly, although he doesn’t have a great deal to do, playing a role he can basically do in his sleep, Ahn Sung-ki is as stately and watchable as ever, lending a touch of gravitas to his scenes.
While there’s nothing new to The Divine Move aside from its concept, it’s one of those films which really just clicks, its various elements gelling to provide a couple of hours of highly entertaining fun. A savvy genre director, Jo Beom-gu does a great job of combining suspense, drama and action, and it’s hard not to get a kick out of the top drawer cast, whether the viewer knows or cares about Go or not.