No, it?s not the worst movie in Korean history. It?s a failed attempt to bring something new to the set conventions of Korean noir.
The opening credits should?ve tipped off the audience that what?s in store is an acid trip
REAL, from first-time director Lee Sa Rang starring Kim Soo Hyun, is a 2017 South Korean noir film attempting to emulate mind-boggling films like Memento, Inception, and Fight Club. But its convoluted plot and obvious twists bog down any effort to make the audiences? mind blown. It bombed in the box office instead and gave birth to a lot of memes.
I came into this movie, expecting it to be really bad. The reviews were so harsh it brought the lead actor to tears. But it?s actually a worthwhile watch. And since it seems many disliked the film because they didn?t understand it, I was inspired to write this.
For those not updated with Korean entertainment, this film has also attracted more hate because of the funding it received from Alibaba in 2015. Kim Soo Hyun?s popularity in China soared to great heights after a Korean drama mega hit. But due to the geopolitical tensions which escalated with THAAD in 2016, China targeted South Korea?s source of soft power: export of their pop culture. This affected a lot of industries especially tourism. So the historically rooted negativity towards China intensified to anything even remotely connected to China for South Koreans.
It?s honestly not surprising why a matinee idol like Kim Soo Hyun wanted this film to be the ?representative work of his late twenties?. Because this had the potential to make a mark in a saturated genre. It tried to bring something new to the set conventions of noir films South Korea tends to make. You know, those gritty films involving crime and gangs with the lead either seeking revenge or torn between betrayal and loyalty while featuring extreme violence and other disturbing scenes. But it pushed a tad much for many people. Ultimately, it failed because it lacked finesse in how it used nonlinear storytelling like in the films it was trying to emulate.
So let me explain the plot for anyone who wants to understand the movie. Everything will be spoiled, so be warned.
THE movie uses dream sequences so we see the characters hallucinate events or experience flashbacks. To make sense of it, we?ll have to arrange the events chronologically. Let?s start with the backstory:
There is a drug trade rivalry between the Chinese and Russian mafias. Cho sells cocaine while Prof. Kim, the mafia enforcer, sells a synthetic drug called siesta. The latter is highly addictive which leads eventually to the user?s death. Detective Noh is after the drug ring for their connection to multiple disappearances. He was working with a freelance journalist, Jang Tae Young, to expose the story.
For his research on the new drug, Jang Tae Young began using siesta while documenting its effects. He also went undercover and joined the Russian mafia, which was how he got his neck tattoo. It is not clear how he met his girlfriend (before working on the story or after) but she was also a siesta addict. She eventually hit the point where the drug kills the user. Jang faced a difficult decision as she was slowly bleeding to death. To end her suffering, he killed her and this trauma caused his mind to break. He overdosed on drugs and tried to kill himself.
It?s unclear who caused it but Jang got into a car accident with the millionaire (this character?s name was never revealed). Both survived but the millionaire is in a vegetative state. And the next time we see Jang in his hospital bed after the accident, it was already his alternate personality that controls the body.
Before we continue, we have to reveal Doctor Choi’s true identity which was one of the plot twists in the movie. He is Boris, the head of the Russian mafia, and creator of siesta. This drug is something he administers to his patients in the hospital. Depending on its use, it can either “save” the patient or eventually kill them. It fascinated the doctor that Jang and the millionaire were able to overcome the deadly effects of the addiction to siesta by disassociating. Though, how they did it was different.
Jang has dissociative identity disorder so he created a persona (I will refer to as gangster Jang for clarity) who is strong, no-nonsense, hates and doesn?t do drugs. That?s why chewing gums is one of gangster Jang?s personality quirks. But then again, gum is a quit tool for smoking, not drugs. The millionaire has depersonalization disorder so he detached from reality and became an observer to his body?s vegetative state. Or as Doctor Choi put it, he was ?existing in a shell, like a ghost?.
The doctor was also the only other user of the drug that overcame the point where death occurs. It?s not clear if it induced any disorder in him since his character was a typical psychopath in sheep?s clothing. He was Hannibal Lecter-esque in manipulating both Jang?s and the millionaire?s mental issues for his own amusement. How much of the events in the film has he orchestrated and how much were coincidence, was also not very clear.
The Significance of Water
In the movie, whenever water is involved, it either signifies something is happening inside the mind?the next scene is a dream sequence?or a change in personas.
Examples: during the opening credits, Jang is walking in a small flood of water. When gangster Jang saw his other persona in the window?s reflection, the glass became water. When they changed places, reporter Jang woke up under the sea and swam up for air. During his coma, the millionaire was floating in the sea.
WHEN the millionaire was declared in a vegetative state, siesta was given to him on Doctor Choi?s orders. A druggie, his body became addicted to the drug even in his coma. It slowly ?killed? his original persona as seen in the dream sequence where we see him bleeding, like how siesta addicts die, then drowning.
Meanwhile, gangster Jang realized he was experiencing blackouts so he went to consult with Doctor Choi.
The psychedelic opening credits, where we see a hand wave then gangster Jang walking in a flooded floor, was Doctor Choi waking up the gangster persona just like when he woke up reporter Jang in the next session. This means the therapy has actually started since after the accident 3 years ago. And why the first question the doctor asked, ?what is your occupation?? to confirm which persona he was talking with.
Kidding, I happened to pause at the right moment that?s how I saw this detail
And if you look closely enough during that trippy opening credits, you can see gangster Jang is walking through a flooded floor with dead bodies covered in plastic. This is part of the traumatic event involving his girlfriend’s death which his mind has repressed.
The two personas don?t have any connection with the other. Gangster Jang doesn?t know anything about reporter Jang except he wears glasses, owns a condo, and visits someone in the hospital. Though they do share particular memories. Gangster Jang at least remembers his lover was raped by a man with the same tattoo as his, but he doesn?t remember that it was a tattoo for the Russian mafia. And that the word ?siesta? was important to him so he will eventually name his casino after it. Their lovers also look alike and both abuse drugs.
Gangster Jang came face to face with his other persona during a job. He works as a fixer for the rich and powerful while he tries to build his own casino. But his casino plans hit a snag when his investors are murdered by an unknown gunman (most likely sent by the Russian mob, courtesy of Doctor Choi). He was shot in the shoulders and that?s when he saw that his reflection in the glass window was his alter ego.
Strangely, whenever reporter Jang controls the body, he visits the millionaire in the hospital. We were never really told why (maybe he thought he caused the accident) but it also fascinated Doctor Choi. And how his plan to ?murder? reporter Jang came about, although it was never really explained how said plan works. It might have been something like ?imprinting? or transferring reporter Jang?s memories to the millionaire since Doctor Choi was reading him a notebook written by reporter Jang.
The curious thing in the hospital scene is, what does the transition of something blue (most likely siesta) mixing with water symbolizes? Is this a dream sequence? The only thing I can think of is, it just symbolizes the awakening of the other persona within the millionaire.
We?ll need to be high to understand the next scene
The hospital room scene is really the weakest and the biggest plot hole of the movie. We can only guess what happened here.
Doctor Choi tricked reporter Jang into believing that by killing the millionaire, he will kill this ego. Murder caused his mind to break once, perhaps killing another person will do something to him again. As he hears the flat line, the reporter Jang persona sleeps deeply in their subconscious and only awakens later in the movie. Gangster Jang wakes up and realizes his other persona took over again. As he rushed out of the room, the millionaire physically wakes up from his coma.
Some time has passed. Gangster Jang has built his resort-casino named Siesta. He doesn?t know the reason why he named it such. Almost done with his physical and psychological therapies, he hasn?t suffered a blackout. So he believes Doctor Choi?s lie that his alter ego is gone after witnessing the brain-dead patient it often visits die.
Meanwhile, the millionaire had plastic surgery, changed his name to Jang Tae Young (from now on, I’m going to refer to as fake Jang), practiced mimicking Jang’s every move, and was slowly infiltrating gangster Jang’s life.
The Giovanni Mirror Syndrome
Before we continue, we need to discuss fake Jang?s psychosis because this affects how his actions in the next chapters of the film are perceived.
No, it’s not
According to Doctor Choi, he suffers from Giovanni Mirror Syndrome. It’s a rare neurological condition only seen in real life once when a patient damaged parts of his brain after a heart attack. The patient assumes a role his environment dictates and remains that, until the scenario changes. In fiction, it can be seen in the movie Zelig and in an episode of House. Both characterizations don’t apply to fake Jang though since he doesn’t mimic anyone but Jang Tae Young. More importantly, the mirroring doesn’t come naturally as how patients who suffer the mirror syndrome supposedly do it. Fake Jang watched hours of footage of gangster Jang to mimic his whole personality.
There is a movie called Single White Female that is closer to the mirroring by fake Jang. In that movie, the character was obsessed at copying her roommate to deal with her survivor’s guilt after her twin’s death. Here, the millionaire who was suicidal drowned (metaphorically speaking) his consciousness and chose to copy a personality (gangster Jang) that was created to overcome the same addiction to siesta. This is why, throughout the movie, fake Jang never became the reporter Jang we saw in the beginning. He never achieved the level of mimicry as he did with gangster Jang.
The Man in the Bejeweled Mask
There?s probably some symbolism involved why they chose this particular Lady Gaga-ish mask. It looks like a fragmented/broken mirror and black can signify many things like evil or demon or shadow. Anyway, let?s move on.
THERE are two battles in this chapter: the mafia drug war and fake Jang stealing Jang’s life. These two are related because fake Jang used the mafia drug war to infiltrate and then later take over Jang’s life.
Cho, the head of the Chinese mafia, bought half of Siesta. What he didn’t know was, the right-hand man of Prof. Kim, Kil-us, has infiltrated his organization. The Russian mafia also wanted control of the resort-casino since it is the perfect place to sell their drugs.
Desperate to buy off Cho’s share in his casino, gangster Jang scrambled to put together the money. This was the opening fake Jang was waiting for. They reached a deal with a few conditions: gangster Jang will help fake Jang bring down Cho’s drug ring for his story, hand over his condo, and a dinner with his girlfriend, Song.
What gangster Jang didn’t know was, fake Jang was working with a Russian-Korean businessman named Sergei aka Prof. Kim, the Russian mafia enforcer. And unlike the real reporter Jang, fake Jang wasn’t really working towards uncovering the truth and exposing the story on the synthetic drug for altruistic reasons. It was just a means to an end of becoming gangster Jang.
An expos on Cho as his motivation to buying Siesta is the only reason gangster Jang will trust him and continually interact with him until he is ready to become gangster Jang. He needed to work with the Russians because it is the only way he can bring down Cho. Then eventually, with Detective Noh, they will expose the Russian mafia’s synthetic drug ring.
Things didn?t go as fake Jang planned. Cho, who evaded arrest, was pressuring gangster Jang to help him find the Russian who orchestrated his predicament. Gangster Jang threw him a bone and tipped him where he can find the reporter after a party. But since fake Jang was listening in to his every move, fake Jang heard this and made his own move to switch places with gangster Jang during the party. So Cho?s ?truck of doom? rammed into the car with gangster Jang instead. But he survived so Cho shot gangster Jang thinking he was the reporter. Then kidnapped Song to blackmail who he thought was gangster Jang to help him find his rival mafia boss.
Fake Jang drops his phone next to gangster Jang’s unconscious body and takes off to assume the latter’s identity. Gangster Jang survives the gunshot with the help of Detective Noh.
DURING fake Jang’s transformation to gangster Jang, he started using drugs. The first instance we saw him use drugs was after he discovered reporter Jang’s videos for his research on siesta. He then re-created the scene in the bathtub.
We only know two things about the millionaire?s true persona: he was a druggie and suicidal. The millionaire was high while recklessly driving his sports car and he got addicted to his meds during his coma. Fake Jang justifies his drug use as being true to who the real reporter Jang was and like reporter Jang, he will be able to ?conquer? the drugs. Only, this is a lie he feeds into his delusion.
In reality, the more fake Jang tries to be gangster Jang, the more he becomes addicted to drugs. And the more he abuses drugs, the more he loses the copy of gangster Jang he tried so hard to create. There is a poetic irony to this. Reporter Jang created the persona of gangster Jang to ?conquer? his drug problem while for the millionaire, the more he transforms himself to copy that persona his drug problem worsens.
Cho noticed this break in character in who he thought was gangster Jang. After fake Jang pressured Prof. Kim to produce the mole to appease Cho, he brought Kil-su to Cho wearing a bulletproof vest. Then he visibly flinched when Cho shot his bodyguard and Kil-su. The mafia boss mocked fake Jang for it and told him that if he wanted to get Song back, he?ll have to bring the Russian mafia boss to him.
Meanwhile, gangster Jang was about to face his real self. Still weak and recovering from the gunshot and being bulldozed by the truck of doom, he proposes to fake Jang that they work together to get Song from Cho. But fake Jang rejects him and threatens to kill him next time they see each other. Detective Noh brings him to reporter Jang?s condo where he sees the truth about his alter ego.
At wit?s end, gangster Jang attempts to awaken his alter ego. He got flashes of reporter Jang?s memories when fake Jang drugged him before. After he takes a hit of siesta (to induce hallucinations), submerges himself into an ice-filled bathtub (to reduce memory loss). The events after he takes the drug is happening in his mind because there?s a water effect when he sees the secret room in full. The memory his mind has repressed so he can forget.
Reporter Jang emerges, angry that he didn?t ?die?. Like at the beginning of the movie, he remembers the traumatic event but we finally see what really happened.
The Russian mafia members are having a wild party in a secret room involving sex and drugs. It is not clear why Jang’s girlfriend was there whether she was a hooker or she was invited to the party or something else. Most of the participants overdosed on siesta and bled to death. Jang is tasked to clean up the room. He sees his girlfriend dying and choking on her own blood. After Prof. Kim leaves, he cold-bloodedly kills his girlfriend to end her suffering. The trauma gave birth to his alter ego. A gangster who has to find the man with a neck tattoo on his right shoulder who raped his girlfriend. It was most likely Boris/Doctor Choi. Prof. Kim’s tattoo was on his chest.
When Jang emerges from the ice-filled bathtub, he is whole. The memories, personalities, and goals, of the two personas have merged. Gangster Jang understands why he existed and reporter Jang now has the resolve to enact his revenge and face what he has done.
While Jang was having his epiphany, Detective Noh, who told the reporter to stay away from the case from now on, followed Prof. Kim.
The plastic covered bodies in the opening credits
When fake Jang confronted him about Kil-su, Prof. Kim realized he was not dealing with his former henchman. He returned to the secret room and found the bodies Jang was supposed to clean-up.
Detective Noh?s distress in seeing the video of Jang?s former girlfriend implies a connection to her but there wasn?t any detail about him in the movie. Because of his reaction, he is discovered by the mafia and killed. Fortunately, he sent his location to Jang before things went south.
After Jang sees Detective Noh’s dead body, he contacts Cho and convinces him that he is the real Jang and he can find Boris. He leads him to his former mafia boss’ house. But Prof. Kim is killed before they can extract information from him. Next, they went to Councilor Choi who overdosed on siesta before he can answer the question. Cho finds the councilor’s phone and sees that the number listed as Boris is the same as his family doctor. A gambling addict, they went to Siesta to find Boris.
Meanwhile, fake Jang?s lawyer has finally uncovered the identity of Boris, the Russian mafia?s boss. So fake Jang makes his preparations before he confronts Doctor Choi aka Boris. A gambling addict at his casino, he placed explosives in Doctor Choi?s casino briefcase. He then goes to the hospital and aims his gun at Doctor Choi. The doctor distracts him by telling him the truth of what happened to him and who he really was. Dazed, the doctor doses him with siesta. Doctor Choi continues to reveal the truth of how he was but a mere ghost in a shell who latched on to his frequent visitor Jang.
Fake Jang asks about Song so Doctor Choi reveals that she was left in his care. But he didn?t know she was pregnant and she was sneaking around stealing painkillers. In Doctor Choi?s care, she became a siesta addict and is slowly dying. After the doctor takes a hit of siesta, he was about to kill them both when he decides against it and leaves the gun in the bed.
This scene is quite illogical. Fake Jang believes Song was held by Cho who hid the girl with his family doctor. So he has no way of knowing that Boris has Song and was, in fact, trying to capture Boris so he can get Song back from Cho. But since he was drugged, maybe he was delirious.
The following scene is the highlight of the movie for me. An opportunity Doctor Choi seized or by his design, fake Jang is about to recreate Jang?s traumatic experience. He?s torn between ending the life of the girl he loves to spare her of further suffering. Or not do anything since she?s going to die anyway. But unlike Jang, he wasn?t capable of cold-blooded murder. He couldn?t decide if he pulls the trigger until his choice became moot.
I got to hand it to Kim Soo Hyun, there is a moment after Sulli?s character dies where he really showed his potential as a character actor. He was able to physically show his character, fake Jang, yet again was experiencing depersonalization as a defense mechanism to trauma. The way he moved his eyes, tilted his head, then changed his expression from distraught to cold empty eyes in a second and yet, he was still able to imbue it with the campy vibe of the millionaire?s alter ego.
Moving on, fake Jang leaves Song?s dead body and picks up the casino chip on the bathroom floor. He takes a hit of the siesta hidden inside. He chases Doctor Choi?s car recklessly and we witness his mind breaking. He went from crazy laughter to gut-wrenching sobs in seconds. And as he exits the tunnel and the scenery gets a water effect, his depersonalization is done. He has yet again detached his mind to his body like what happened to the millionaire in his coma.
He aimlessly enters the casino forgetting he was chasing Doctor Choi. While sitting at the bar, semiconscious, Cho?s gang arrives at the casino in search of Doctor Choi. A gunfight ensues.
Doctor Choi retrieves his briefcase with chips and drugs out of the casino vault and hurriedly tries to smuggle it out. He shoots Cho who?s about to shoot a dazed fake Jang before the Chinese mafia boss can pull the trigger. And as the doctor reaches the main door, he encounters Jang who he shoots in the shoulder. Luckily, Doctor Choi ran out of bullets and Jang was able to kill him first. Doctor Choi drops his briefcase with the hidden explosives.
As chaos erupts in the casino, fake Jang is having an out of the body experience. With his guilt over Song?s death, his complicated feelings towards her, and his regrets, he forced his mind to embody a person who could avenge her. His mind evokes memories of watching gangster Jang singlehandedly fight Cho?s gang. That?s why the next scene became something out of a superhero movie . Fake Jang wanted to become a hero for Song, at least in his mind. The fight still happens in real life but it wasn?t as fancy or awesome.
The aquarium wall bursts and water submerges the whole floor. As mentioned before, water means the scene is a dream sequence.
This might be the most hated part of the film
Like Jang, he has to face his real self at some point. Done with the physical fight, he has to battle his inner demons. In his subconscious, he isn?t fake Jang anymore. He?s the ?ghost? that was yet to become gangster Jang: flamboyant, eccentric, and deeply disturbed. The ghost/detached mind of the millionaire has to fight his way through the personal demons (goons in black suits) which caused the millionaire to detach from reality.
The movie personified this inner battle within the millionaire with a ballet dance battle sequence. The dance fight ended with the ?ghost? kicking his real self out of his deep torpor and into reality. As the millionaire breaks out of his lethargy, he wakes into the severely injured body of fake Jang.
Jang aims his gun at the millionaire who aims his gun in return. But the latter slowly drops them and trudges forward ignoring Jang. He walks to the edge of the destroyed casino floor and kills himself.
As Doctor Choi said, ?You see what?s real by losing everything.? Jang realized he was capable of doing things he didn?t think he can to survive; and he learned to accept that side of him to become a stronger person. The millionaire discovered that the real him is the same person he didn?t want to be, to begin with.
Edited. Quote from the beginning of the film is inserted to the last scene.
Thoughts on the film:
If we judge this film and compare it to other South Korean noir films, it?s mediocre. While it has the premise of a Korean noir, it didn?t execute the usual elements one expects: a testosterone fest showcasing excessive and brutal violence. The ballet dance battle, while creative , is not something people would want when they go out and see a film labeled as noir in South Korea. It subverted the set conventions of the genre so the audiences felt robbed.
Thing is, this film is more of a psychological drama than Korean noir. It is closer to the likes of ?Requiem for a Dream? than ?Old Boy?. Look deeper and you?ll see this is an exploration of addiction and how it affects its sufferers. Like the mental illnesses it causes. Or how they lose who they are after succumbing to the temptation. And how different people deal and persist to overcome this problem. Or fail to do so.
That?s why I said, this had potential. Because it was trying to twist the tried and tested formula of a popular genre and make something else. Something other than the gritty revenge plot South Korea keeps regurgitating since Old Boy.
But alas, despite the many interesting imageries used in this film, the director?s inexperience was pretty obvious. What with all the excessive use of colored lights to set the mood. Or the empty feeling of each setting. And underutilizing its supporting characters played by amazing actors. Though the spinning mirror shot is pretty cool.
Chapter 1, primarily that nonsensical hospital room scene, is the biggest plot hole in the film. It shot down any chance of playing on the mystery of who was real or not. And it doesn?t fit the delusion that influenced fake Jang?s actions in the next chapters. Nor does it explain why the millionaire was so obsessed to be Jang and believes he is Jang. It?s also pretty obvious nothing was ?transferred? since the personality that emerged from the millionaire after he awakens was so far from any of the personas of Jang.
Funnily enough, there?s a Japanese film by the same English name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (famous for Tokyo Sonata). It also involved transferring consciousness. But at least it used something more believable (via an experimental brain surgery).
Perhaps this film is too ?out there? and complicated for the mainstream audience. After all, this honestly looks like an attempt to make an arthouse film with a mainstream movie budget. On the other hand, this is too unpolished for people who like watching ?cerebral? films which aim to mindf*ck you with its mysteries.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope this helped or at least made you reconsider your thoughts on the film.
An earlier version of this has been posted at r/koreanfilm.