Assassination / 암살 Movie Review (2015) : Detailed Full Version

Assassination (2015) Korean Movie Review: Detailed Full Version


What is worse: a poorly made propaganda movie or a skillfully made one?



Hello. This is Prof. AKIA with a review of “Assassination” (2015) starring Jun Ji-Hyun, Ha Jung-Woo, and Lee Jung-Jae.


Introduction

What do you consider a propaganda movie?

According to merriam-webster.com, propaganda is “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.” Wikipedia, while referring to James Combs, says that propaganda is “to produce and spread fertile messages that, once sown, will germinate in large human cultures.” I like the latter definition better as it is more descriptive of human psychology. Propaganda movies are a unique 20th century form of delivering Propaganda.

For a moment, I am going to remove any value judgement associated with the term “propaganda.”

While it is easy to define propaganda movies in one sentence casually, it is not that easy to categorize them in practice because the definition is overly vague. In truth, all human art can be said to be a form of delivery system for propaganda but in varying degrees of closeness to the “message” and of aggressiveness on how this “message” is delivered.

The concept of preaching to the choir also applies here!



Movies like “Rocky” and “Rambo” and their sequels could be considered propaganda movies. Many view them as Imperial “jingoistic” American propaganda while other view them as “America fuck yeah!” movies. Both are actually saying the something but from different sides of the fence. And others just view them as silly but fun popcorn action movies.


This is where things get interesting!

In many ways, the “Rocky” and “Rambo” movies are so broad that there is actually a lot of distance between them and the “topic” or “message” they are trying to deliver. The fact that they are watered down silly popcorn movies also adds to the distance. So, I like to call these type of movies “3rd hand” propaganda movies while movies more on the point and specific to the “cause” they are aligned with are closer to “1st hand” propaganda movies.

It is a scale thing!

So, why am I talking about propaganda movie? It is because the subject of this review, “Assassination” (2015), is a propaganda movie. More accurately, it is a “Korean left wing” propaganda movie.

People like to lump political leanings together in broad groups but what constitutes “left wing” actually differs from culture/country to culture/country a lot. Thus, the propaganda movies differ a lot also. As a result, if you are not well versed with the historical context of the society in which the movies were placed, you may not even notice that they are propaganda movie.

Then are they even propaganda movie?
Something to ponder but not here!


“Assassination” (2015), is a Korean ‘Left wing’ propaganda movie as much as “Northern Limit Line” (2015) is a Korean ‘Right wing’ propaganda movie. Well…“Assassination” (2015) is more like a 2.5th hand propaganda movie while “Northern Limit Line” (2015) is 1.8th hand because it is more on the nose. Left versus Right! The two would make an interesting double feature.

Since I laid the foundation, let’s get to the movie!


Click Pic to Read Review


Mission Briefing
It is sometime around 1930s and the Pacific war is still just in the heads of the hot heads on both sides of the Pacific. It has been more than 2 decades since Japan annexed the peninsular of Joseon or what would become to be known as Korea. Infants who were born after the “not so joyful” event are now adults. However, things are not all jolly for the Japanese as the “locals” or Koreans are restless within their homeland and abroad. Japans is also fighting with the Chinese and Russian which do not help matters.



Some Koreans have set up a “government in exile” in China. They have some military forces to harass the Japanese along the Chinese country side to perform acts of sabotage in other countries including Korea and even in Japan itself. The movie is about an assassination mission targeting the Japanese and their Korean collaborators and the 3 soldiers chosen from ranks of the Korean “government in exile” military who were all convicted of crimes such as mutiny like in the case of “Jun Ji-Hyun.”

Yes, Jun Ji-Hyun again tries to pull off being bad ass again and, to my surprise, doesn’t fall on her face.
This is a backhanded compliment!

Nazis and the Japanese are the same, right?


Sound familiar?

Classic movie lovers may have the movie “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) pop in their heads when reading the setup of this Korean movie. Well, in fact, many movies could pop up in relation to this setup as “sending a ragtag groups of convicts to fight the Nazis” became a genre on to itself for a while. No self-respecting “WW2 suicide mission” movie would have been caught dead, no pun intended, without at least one convicted felon amongst its ranks during the day.  



This evoking of “let’s kill Nazis” movies from the past by the Korean movie “Assassination” (2015) is no coincidence. The Korean movie uses a lot of narrative devices and short hand developed by the “let’s kill Nazis” movies to equate the “Japanese” with “Nazis.”

Japanese = Nazis = KILL THEM ALL!


It even uses the “if the protagonists wear enemy uniforms, no one knows better except for the one who cannot speak the language” trope seen in many Hollywood movies. This trope works in those movies because there were a lot of Germans in American during the time of the war and the German people had interbred with other European peoples for a long time. This is not the case for Koreans and Japanese of the day. Even now, it is not too hard to differentiate between the two peoples.


Oh, did I not mention that this movie is pandering to the anti-Japanese sentiment brewing up in Korea for the last few years?

While the Pacific theatre of WW2 tends to be lumped in with the European war as simply WW2, there were significant differences between them.  There were different motivations and ideologies in play on each theatre. What I am trying to say is that Nazis and the Japanese are NOT the same thing. Both were in the wrong but not exactly in the same manner. So, trying to overlap images of Nazis onto the Japanese is conceptually problematic, but actually effective in terms of propaganda as movies, especially Hollywood ones, have more experience portraying Nazis in movies then Japanese as despicable villains.  Thus, we, the audience, are trained to response in a certain manner when introduced to those images of Nazis. The same cannot be said for the Japanese portrayed in movies.


What “Assassination” is….
So, “Assassination” (2015) barrows heavily from movies such as “The Dirty Dozen” (1967). Then, is it a “going on a suicide mission to kill Nazis” clone just placed in Korea? I would have to say no because then I would have to say that it is a poorly executed one.

Those movies like “heist” movies require a narrative/structural focus on the mission going over the details meticulously. While “Assassination” (2015) goes through the motions in this regard, its heart is not into it as it is not really that type of movie. So, it comes off as messy which veers into the big problem of the movie that I’ll discuss later.





The movie “Assassination” (2015) is structurally more about how many different plot lines randomly intertwine together until all of them collide at one moment to cause some spectacular chaos usually involving a lot of guns and multiple side shooting crazily at each other. You have the 3 Korean military assassins doing their thing, what amounts to “Han Solo and Chewbacca” duo in period costumes doing their thing, and mustache Japanese villains and turncoats doing their thing. There is even a very soap opera-ish twin and mistaken identity subplot running through the movie.

Hectic isn’t it?


While the initial setup of the movie is reminiscent of “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), this is more of a reference rather than being influences by it. In terms of visuals, this Korean movie is more influenced by the “Indiana Jones” especially the ones with Nazis although the portrayal of Chinese reminds me of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). What I mean is that the period piece aesthetic of “Assassination” (2015) has that hyper-real feel to it that makes me think the actors are cosplaying.

Don’t get me wrong!
That can be interesting.


“Assassination” (2015) even copies the truck action scene from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). However, the movie that truly influenced this Korean movie is Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). For one, both are wish fulfillment fantasy movies.

Not talking about elves and orcs here!

The resistance never came close to killing Hitler as in the manner portrayed in “Inglourious Basterds.” The “Korean government in exile” never had the resources to make an impact on the larger political stage which “Assassination” (2015) hugely over compensates for.



Second, while the Korean movie is not as fragmented as “Inglourious Basterds” which felt like an omnibus movie, “Assassination” (2015) shares the sense of causal chaos Quentin Tarantino as a director loves. The movie even tries to incorporate the more casual dialogue style which Quentin Tarantino made famous in the 90s to negative effects in my opinion.

Third… well many of the action scenes seems to be outright inspired by scenes from “Inglourious Basterds.”
What else can one say?

The Good!
The movie is trying to do a lot which at least makes it interesting. But how is the execution?

Well…. It is not bad.
I mean it is really NOT bad.

Since this is an action movie with lots of guns and explosions, let’s talk about the action first. What can I say? The movie is rather great in this area. The movie basically has two big set pieces in which everything combines in a hectic but oddly choreographed manner that is enjoyable to watch. The action scenes do not over stay their welcome and give us a lot of over the top action without veering too much into self-indulgence.


The movie does indulge itself in “cool for cool sake” action scenes but not too egregiously.
So, we can give it a pass.

On a production design level, the colorful and over the top ‘period piece’ feel of the movie is never dull although never as spectacular as these thing can get. On the narrative level, once the movie clarifies what kind of movie it is, it is pretty successful at juggling all the subplots in the air at the same time. While the movie does not go deep into each subplot, it simplifies them well enough that the movie can get away with it. This is also true for the characters.


While the characters are not given enough development to move them beyond being just cartoon character, the actors cast in the roles are charming enough that they make the characters fun to watch on screen. The “breakout” character of the movie is the “Hawaii Pistol” played by “Ha Jung-Woo.” He plays basically ‘period piece” Han Solo with sufficient charm deserving of that type of “rogue with a heart of gold” character and works well off the always reliably funny “Oh Dal-Su” who is plays his sidekick.



The Okay…
The villains are the ones that get the short end of the stick in terms of character development even for this kind of movie as they are just meant to be outright mustache twirling villains. However, the actors cast are strong enough that you somewhat miss them on screen when they meet their bloody ends as these things go. 



“Lee Jung-Jae” plays what amounts to Christoph Waltz’ character in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) but doesn’t really break out like Waltz did in that movie. Lee Jung-Jae has been in the industry for a long time with a lot of success. However, he seems not able to find the perfect role for the post-handsome-leading-man phase of his career. He is not bad as a villain in this movie. His character is at least more memorable than most of the Marvel movie villains. It is just that there needed to be more to the character which is not totally the fault of the actor.



Now let’s talk about “Jun Ji-Hyun.” If this movie had a main protagonist, Jun Ji-Hyun’s character as the leader of the assassination team would be it. She is also the center of a rather “soap opera-ish” subplot in the movie and I’m not even talking about the romance subplot with Ha Jung-Woo’s character the movie unnecessarily shoe-horns in amongst the already long run time. The movie is 140 minutes long. Getting to the point, Jun Ji-Hyun is pretty good in the movie because her role is tailored to her strengths.


As an actress, Jun Ji-Hyun has specific limits which seems to be set in stone for eternity. And I actually like her as a celebrity which the photo of her as my Windows desktop picture more than a decade ago will prove. She basically has 3 modes of acting. The first is the fast talking and over the top comedic character which made her career as an actress. The second is her as a romance character with few words. The third and worst mode is as “bad ass” action gal with even fewer words which comes off as just dull.  “Assassination” (2015) combines the latter two modes which ends up balancing out the negative of aspects of “bad ass” action gal mode. Overall, Jun Ji-Hyun is fine in this movie.


But not everything is at least above board with this movie even though using Jun Ji-Hyun effectively is a feat that should be respected.

The Bad!
“Assassination” (2015) has one big problem and a few shortcomings even without going into the propaganda discussion. Generally, I just want to write about this movie without going into the arena of who is right in terms of political ideologies.

The big problem with this movie is the first 25~30 minutes or so which is basically everything prior to the assassination team getting into Korea via China. In other words, I’m talking about the basic setup phase of the movie. To be frank, I disliked this part a lot before having a change of mind in the latter parts of this movie.

Still hate the first part though!

Korean movies are not known for their world building or providing information in a concise and simplest manner. “Assassination” (2015) is not the exception. In fact, it is rather worse. The first 30 minutes or so of the movie sets up the backstory to the world and political situation. It introduces many fictional version of “real” political figures of some I recognize and others I did not. As an educated Korean person, I know Korean history albeit on a grade school level. I am personally more versed in European history.  And I could barely understand what the H**l was going on in terms of the world the movie was setting up.

F~ing…….!

Although it did not help that most of the details were either exaggerated or altered, the problem was that the movie could simply not convey the information one requires properly. The main source of the problem was that the movie was using the casual dialogue style popularized by Quentin Tarantino.



While you can get a sense of energy and realism by using that style, the style works poorly when the writing is poor or you have a lot of information to deliver. And the dialogue in “Assassination” (2015) is not well written.


No Shakespeare here!

I would say that the level of writing skill is slightly better than what you can see in the Star Wars prequels or “Jupiter Ascending” (2015) but not by leaps and bounds. A basic action movie could get away with the quality of dialogue in “Assassination” but not a movie that tries to use Quentin Tarantino style dialogue. The chaotic nature of the movie didn’t really help with this also.

The other side of the problem is that the movie did not yet find itself in the first 30 minutes. Previously, I mentioned the influence of “The Dirty dozen” on this movie and the fact that this is rather misleading. The movie is not about convicts trying to find salvation from going on the suicide mission or building up comradery between a ragtag bunch of rough and damaged people.  In fact, the fact they are convicts play utterly no role in the story other than as material for one not so funny joke. The movie doesn’t care. I mean all 3 members of the team are convicts. Usually, there is at least one straight laced character in those movie teams.

In this movie, everyone ends up being on the straight and narrow path without any problems.
This totally negates the reason for this basic set up in the first place.

However, the movie initially spends a decent amount of time gathering up the “team” in typical “The Dirty dozen” manner. Or in laymen terms, they need to get sprung out from jail. As a result, the movie basically wastes about 30 minutes of the audience’s time, which could have been used for exposition and character building, pretending to be something it is not.

In terms of minor shortcomings, the movie has some. The first that pops into my head is that fact that it is too long with a running time of 140 minutes. If the movie just fixed the first 30 minutes, the movie could have trimmed 15 minutes off the runtime with ease. Another is the fact that there is a certain amount of clashing of tones.

On one hand, this could have been a more humorous action movie. The look of the movie is somewhat over the top and most of the characters have a comedic side to them. In fact, half of the main cast are basically comedy characters and cast with actors who can do comedy. In its building blocks, this movie has far more comedic potential than “Inglourious Basterds” but really the latter ends up being more funny albeit a twisted kind of satirical funny. “Assassination” plays it far straighter in order to better support the propaganda aspect of the movie since sarcasm does not go off well with mainstream Korea.

I mean even more so!

Another shortcoming related to the prior one is that the movie does not full on play with the chaotic format of the movie. The director, Choi Dong-Hoon, while he can handle the chaos, doesn’t seem or want to really play with it. If you think about it, doing so may be counterproductive to the propaganda objective.

So, I get it.
But I would have wanted some more risks be taken.

The final shortcoming I will mention is more of a wish than a criticism. Previously, I said that the plot and character development lacked depth but had enough to make the movie work. This is true but I cannot stop thinking more would have made this movie far better.

Now let’s get back to the whole propaganda thing!


Propaganda…Really?
While on the surface, “Assassination” (2015) could be watched as a simple anti-Japanese and wish fulfillment movie like on the level of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). At the same time, “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), while having themes relevant today, it is dealing with basically “dead” propaganda idea.

Nazis are evil!
And they are mostly extinct now.
People who say Nazis are not evil are few and far between.
The total number of Nazis and zombies kill in pop culture will be enormous.

“Assassination” (2015) is a movie pandering to the anti-Japanese sentiment not just as a wave to nostalgia but as an attempt to toss fuel on a fire of something current and very alive.

While Korea’s anti-Japanese sentiment has flare up on occasion whenever things are not going so well just like herpes, this time it is a little different as things have been building up for years now. 

Well … the economy has been in a steady decline for a decade and politics are more radical and silly than ever.
You get the picture of Korea.

Before proceeding, I want to say that the current wave of anti-Japanese sentiment is rather juvenile and unhelpful. Japan is one of Korea’s biggest trading countries providing a huge portion of the production equipment and components used in making anything exported by Korea. About 35~40% of Korea’s literary publications including mangas but excluding textbook are translations of Japanese properties. Among the remaining, about 45% are translations of English properties. Actual Korean properties only compose about 5~10% of the market. In fact, I grew up on mostly American and Japanese literacy/ intellectual properties. I think Korean properties only made up 5% of my upbringing. And this was not uncommon among my generation. Things have not much changed even now except kids today do not read!

LOL
I’m an old grumpy man!
Get off my lawn.

Back to the movie.

This means that “Assassination” (2015) is at least or even more of a propaganda movie than movies such as the “Rocky” and “Rambo” sequel movies viewed at the time they were made. Have you heard of the Cold War and USSR?


Now, they are just examples of cheesy nostalgia…

In other words. “Assassination” (2015) is at least a 3rd hand movie. But there is more.

Hate Japan!…The rallying call of the  Korean left wing
What I described about the movie up to this point is most of what the movie is. However, the movie has an additional wrapping around it. The movie is basically told as a flashback set in 1948 after the liberation of Korean and two year prior to the Korean War.

In regards to how the flashback is presented is actually somewhat of a mess structurally as if they were tiptoeing around it. However, it is not because it is unimportant as it contains basically the main message the movie is trying to deliver to the Korean audience living now under smoke screen of gunpowder smoke and debris.

It is basically that everything Korea is now is contaminated with former Japanese collaborators and current collaborators with America which is basically the same thing as Japan. Thus, what exists now is false and has to be torn down and destroyed and replaced.


Think of the theme of Captain America: the winter soldier (2014) but without the comic book.
No capes also.


This idea is nothing unique to Koreans. It is the underlining premise of the Matrix movies after all. There will always be the disillusioned who also have an anarchist streak to them. The thing unique about Korea is that this is basically the ultimate rallying cry for the wider Korean left wing.

The term of “left wing” is very broad encompassing many disparate groups of people and ideas. This is what generally keeps them in check as, once they go beyond the joint dislike of the establishment, there is a lot of conflicting interests within this broad grouping. This is the same for the Korean left wing except for one thing.

I mean there is a lot of weirds ideas floating around all mesh up together within the Korean left wing.
Many of those had they heyday decades ago globally but they still are going strong here.
But that is a topic for another day and another outlet.

Koreans are a people with a lot of insecurities. We were a 3rd world country even in the “Good old times” when Kings and Confucianism ruled. Then, we were basically conquered by Japan without even firing a shot. They just walked in and said that the king had to sign over the country as if we had defaulted on a loan and that was that.

During the occupation, most of the Korean efforts for liberation was indirect. Not much were done directly at least inside the peninsula. The Japanese ran a tight ship and Korean didn’t really have the social infrastructure laid out to do more than focusing on education. The situation abroad was not much better although there were some military actions albeit small scale ones. The so called “government in exile” never had the resources or was able to consolidate the disparate factions floating around to make much of an global impact. In other words, Koreans would killed to be something like ISIS or even Al-Qaeda but reality was nothing as grand. So, the actions performed by the assassination team in the movie are across the board a fantasy. Then, Korea was just liberated like that by the Allies. Koreans had basically no hand in it.

You see why Koreans would develop a complex or two?

Once Korea was liberated, the country for Koreans by Koreans and only for Koreans that many dreamed of did not materialized. It couldn’t be realized not only because of global politics but also because “Koreans,” as an idealized concept in the heads of those who believed, never existed in real life up to that point. We were just groups of people that shared some familial traits ruled all along by a dynasty and nothing much more. Once you got “Koreans” together, no one could agree on what was a Korean and what to do. This startled many with their heads in the clouds about the idealized view of the “Korean” people.

What can you do when your idealized concepts are threatened? What should you do? There are several ways one can react. But many go for the easy solution and blame it on others and view anyone with different opinions as traitors. Hate is a great tool for this and Koreans had a clearly defined target for their hate in addition to some vague traitors within their ranks. This is why the view of anything and everything after the occupation is “tainted” took hold which is ironic if you think about it.

In any case, a “realistic” or “tainted” Korea was created depending on who you asked. It was a capitalist country which many was opposed to and then everything went up in smoke during the war. At first, many viewed it as a purging of the “tainted.” Some still do. Many were killed. In the subsequent years, Korea flourished becoming a country that makes movies worth you reading through this long long long review. However, the sense of “taint” has lingered and gradually taken roots in the consciousness of Koreans and its culture. More so with groups that get lumped in with the left wing as they do not have many ties with the world of today.

For the Korean left wing, the term anti-Japanese is the flag being waved but the thing waving the flag is the world view that the currently world is tainted and needs to be destroyed or at least purified. And this works like a charm almost every time. It helps the Korean left wing to maintain more cohesiveness relative to the Korean right wing. With its 1948 bookends wrapping around the past “occupation” period story, “Assassination” (2015) is promoting this view of the world. Thus, it becomes a more bod fide propaganda movie.

Yay!
Right?

Assassination V.S. Northern Limit Line
At this point, I do not want to discuss politics. Just the movies.

With its bookends, “Assassination” (2015) moves from a 3rd hand propaganda movie to someplace closer to 2nd hand but not right on it. It does disguise its intentions somewhat through its period piece aesthetic and pop corm movie sensibilities. Also, it is still not on the nose enough regarding its message. So, I’ll say something like 2.3 on the scale.


In contrast, “Northern Limit Line” (2015) is far more on the nose. At the same time, its message is very simplistic and underdeveloped. This pushes the movie towards the right of the scale.

Insert your left wing right wing puns here!

The big deciding factor here is the truth that “Northern Limit Line” (2015) is far less well made on a basic movie making level compared to “Assassination” (2015). The Korean movie industry has been dominated by the left wing for a long time. In fact, if you see all the biggest Korean box office movie over the last decade or so, you can glimpse left wing leanings in basically all of them. This means that there are far more skilled creators who do not have to try so hard at inserting messages on the left. The basic messages of  “Assassination” (2015) just naturally seeps into your consciousness if you aren’t looking out for it.  It also helps that the Korean audience is predisposed to the message. The fact that there is a big pay day waiting for you if you make leftwing movies in Korea is a nice incentive. In contrast, “Northern Limit Line” (2015) tries way too hard. It is a propaganda movie that has to force viewers into seats using propaganda. So, I’ll place it around 1.7 on scale.



Conclusion
After almost 5,000 words put on paper about this movie what more is there to say. Well… a lot which also is a reason why “Assassination” (2015) is a far better made movie than its counterpart. The pacing of the movie is not bad. It does keep moving although the movie runs longer than it should. It is not deep nor totally shallow. And the action is fun with the actors doing enough to earn their pay checks.

I am curious if foreigners would catch the propaganda beyond the surface level anti-Japanese messaging being delivered. While I would not put the movie on the best of all time lists, I think it would be an interesting window into the psyche of Koreans and their twisted history for foreigners. Just do not fall for the tricks trying to be pulled on you.

Not for you!


In conclusion, “Assassination” (2015) is a well-made popcorn action movie which also is a Korean left wing propaganda. The major fault of the movie is that the first 30 minutes is messy and confusing which is not help with the 140 minute run time. The movie could have been trimmed by 20 minutes easily by streamlining the early parts of the movie and focusing on proving information to the audience. But that is just wishful thinking.

Thus, I give a  B+ grade.


Score: B+ or 7.5/10




This was Prof. AKIA and thanks for reading my review.
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Past Reviews. Click on the pictures

Northern Limit Line (2015) Review

Intimate Enemies/나의 절친 악당들(2015) Review
Perfect Proposal / 은밀한 유혹 (2015) Review

The Shameless /무뢰한 (2015)  Review

The Treacherous (2015)  Review

The Chronicles of Evil/악의 연대기 (2015)  Review

Love Clinic 연애의 맛(2015)  Review

Coin Locker Girl / Chinatown 차이나타운 (2015) Review


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Review


Revivre 화장 (2015) Review

Twenty (2015)  Review

The pictures and video used in this review are done for criticism purposes and are the properties of those copyright holders. This review is mine.
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