The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo (2015) Review

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA updating you on my Korean movie book called  "Taste of Korean Popcorn 2015:
A Look at Korean Society through 2015 mainstream Korean Cinema." that I'm working on.

In this post, I am showing off an example of the movie review format with the review of Korean horror movie "The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo" (2015). 

Here is an example.

“What is funny about journalism?”
“Can we laugh at journalism?”

This is an interesting question to ask that many do not actually do. We tend to treat journalism with such reverence that it is not easy to see the funny side of the profession. However, like all endeavors humans are involved with, there should be a ridiculous aspect to it. The art of comedy is finding those aspects. So, if you are going to make let’s say a black comedy about the profession, you have to find the absurd, ridiculous aspect to what can be called the modern clergy.

“Ah, the catholic clergy…those jokes write themselves.”

In terms of comedy, the low hanging fruit is pointing a finger at the incompetence of others from the heights of our false moral high ground. That is one of the reason the “mentally challenged” are “hilarious”…I say carefully wishing everyone can read the sarcasm in my tone. You get the idea. These type of jokes have existed forever. However, there is a reason why we call them low hanging fruit. It is a trashy and fast type of humor that doesn’t linger like a fine wine or an especially smelly fart!

“Inserted a fart joke… It is easy”

In short form story telling such a comedy skits, this approach works fine-ish. It doesn’t go so well with long form formats such as feature full length movies. That single joke about a person or a group of people being absurdly incompetent gets old fast. And you are left with the rest of the movie. If you are more ambitious and want to go for a Black comedy, you have to dig deeper as that genre of comedy employs morbid humor that makes light of taboo subject matters according to Wikipedia. You have to dig deep into what that subject matter is and then find what is funny about it. What are the hypocrisies? What are the contradictions? Those questions need to be asked. Sadly the Korean movie “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) seems to not have done its homework properly…

The Setup
The pitch for the movie goes something like this. A newspaper reporter panics after getting fired because of an unforeseeable mistake he made. He then follows up on a tip in order to find a scoop that would bring back into good standing. This leads him to the lair of a suspected serial killer. Once he brings this juicy scoop to his former bosses, he is instantly pushed into the lime light. He is rehired and even gets a promotion to the TV news. But here is the catch. Our protagonist didn’t really do his homework. You know there is something called research and evidence. In his haste, he skipped over those parts and didn’t do his due diligence. Well, you can’t totally blame him… his bosses basically did the same thing. They just took his word on faith without corroboration because the story was too juicy and they assumed that he actually did his job. That was stupid of them. So, it should not be a surprise that he was wrong.

“He is really an idiot”
“He missed the target by a mile”

Our protagonist cannot really come out and confess this. And the bosses doesn’t really want to hear it. So, our protagonist is left with his fingers crossed praying things just die down. Sad for him. God likes a mean joke from time to time. Things escalate and he ends up fabricating stuff to feed the hungry 24 hour news cycle. As a result every time he lies, his stock rises. This is where the irony comes in. Our protagonist is in constant fear. Even all the praise and benefits cannot salience the fear that this will all crumble down at any moment. At the same time, he is too afraid to actually fix the situation. He is between a rock and a hard place. Don’t be too sad for him. At least it is well furnished with expensive trappings. And he really deserves it. Now the twist…

Working off the setup, this could be a slapstick Jim Carrey type of comedy such as “Liar Liar” (1997). You know the ones in which the protagonist makes a mistake and his efforts to cover up that mistake snowballs into giant proportions. At the end of the movie, the protagonist learns a life lesson and becomes a better person, a better spouse, and etc. You know the movie. They were made a ton at the end of the 20th century in Hollywood. “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is not that type of movie. Rather, it is… or at least tries to be a black comedy primarily focused on the ridiculousness of modern Journalism.  You could say it is the funny version of “Nightcrawler” (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a corrupt video journalist. Well… it would be more accurate to say the movie wants to be but fails to be the funny version of “Nightcrawler” (2014).

“Word play!”

Let’s think about this a moment. Is the surface level ridiculousness of modern Journalism enough alone to support a whole black comedy? This is tricky. If you are going for a standard one concept gag based comedy movie such as “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013) starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and Paul Rudd, it could work although it may also fail spectacularly. For a black comedy, the comedy tends to skew more subtle yet more biting. So, it is a good bet to mine deeper and dig into “why” than just saying “the audience is stupid and the news industry is ratings hungry.” Even with “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013), that approach became thin at the end of the movie. The same logic applies to this Korean movie.

“The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is a black comedy for most parts. There are not really any “stop and wait for the joke” moments in the movie. It is just characters going about their lives and events happen as if this was a normal drama/thriller. It is just the absurd nature of those events and behaviors of the characters that make the movie a black comedy. This balance is very tricky to manage. Not only does the acting and the direction need to nail the tempo and pacing but the script’s understanding of the subject matter has to be detailed and spot on. Sadly, “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) fails at both.

In terms of its subject matter, the script is very broad and vague. It has nothing more to say about the matter than saying the news outlets are only concern with feeding the shallow needs of the ignorant populous. They will broadcast any news even false ones if it will get people to turn channels. They will do this either by deliberate ignorance or by just by pure distain. I’m not sure if the movie cares which. It really doesn’t understand the motivations of the character beyond the simplistic label of “greed.” In addition to the shallowness, this view on the subject matter is not even unique to Korea. You could basically apply this to a Hollywood journalism movie and you just need to change the names around. What does this all mean?  The movie doesn’t actually have much to make fun of. It runs out quite fast.

“Running on empty”

In terms of the movie’s execution, “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) has the fault of not being sure how to be a black comedy. During the 125 minute run time of this movie, it was only at the 45 minute mark that I could be confident that this was in fact a black comedy. Before then, I only had my suspicions from a few scenes here and there. This is because the movie is too straight in its directions. There wasn’t as much that differentiated this movie from a standard Korean drama movie. It could have gone either way. Visually, nothing really standout hinting this was a comedy. Acting wise, the cast seemed to be playing it straight. Yes, the protagonist was acting like the classic blind comic strip character Mr. Magoo bumbling around making things worse. However, there was really no indication that he wasn’t just a huge idiot. We have a lot of those in real life Korea. Even his boss played by a veteran actress was playing it far straighter than her usual self. So, she came off stiff. You could not find a hint of irony or being over the top in her expressions.

“Considering she does a lot of over the top soap roles, this is something”

A lot of what we view as being comedic comes from contrasting. The standard comedy duo or “The Fool and the Straight Man” dynamic is used to emphasized this contrast within the dynamic.  In “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015), this contrast is very illusive. Who is the Fool and who is the Straight Man? Our protagonist is definitely a fool from how he bumbles around like an idiot but he is not totally a fool in the “comedic” sense. His boss is somewhat of a Fool because she ended up publishing false stories but, if she doesn’t care, does that make her the Straight Man? The same can be said about the detective who is trying to find out what is going on. Since the direction of the movie is so straight, most of the main characters come off all blurry. What about the events? Is there a significant contrast between the “Straight” past and the “absurd” present? Considering there is basically no indication how the past was like, the absurdity of the present doesn’t pop out. I’m not even sure if the protagonist was a competent reporter before the events of this movie. It could be totally valid that he was always a screw-up. So, what are we left with? The only concrete contrast that the movie depends on is the contrast between the journalism portrayed in the movie and what the audience think of journalism in our heads. It assumes that the movie is absurd enough that the contrast will make the movie funny. This doesn’t always work for folks like myself who are very pessimistic about so called “Journalism” in Korea. It is already absurd enough in our minds.

“The news plays like a classic farce”
“And it is free!…well you’ll end up paying it down the line…”

Middle Split
While the black humor of “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) doesn’t always work, I would say that, when things get really crazy about the 50 minute mark of this movie, the movie gets amusing. The false news broadcasts are in full swing. The detective is on the tail end of the truth. The protagonist is deteriorating from the terror of getting caught. It is amusing. One of the lessor faults of this movie is that it thinks that it is more clever than it actually is. This point in the movie is also when the movie earns some of that bravado. “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is not a good black comedy but it is not a terrible experience watching the movie.

“Smooth sailing right?”

Then, it stops. The comedy is no more.

“The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is one of those recent Korean movies that have a mid-movie split in tones or genres. If the first half movie was a black comedy about faking news stories about a serial killer, the second half is a standard serial killer thriller with a ticking clock, a hostage, and a villain monologue. This change happens right after the 60 minute mark and you cannot miss it. It is as if two different scripts were paste together at the middle. One script is written from the beginning without an ending while the other is working back from the conclusion but without a start. The writer/director seems to have just pasted these two screenplays together in the middle. You can see this in the fact that the detective character changes drastically from first to second halves of the movie. All of the time spent on information gathering that hinted that he was good at his job is tossed out and he becomes your cliché idiot detective in these type of movies.

The thing that really is a shame is that the villain himself is pretty interesting and the actor gives the best performance in the movie. However, this cannot hide the fact that the plot is generic for this genre and not well executed. In addition, the protagonist from the first half of this movie does not work as the protagonist of a serial killer thriller. When the shift happens, the protagonist is a blabbering mess on the verge of a mental breakdown. It is not believable that he could confront the villain and come out alive. He is such a pathetic excuse of the character that you really want the serial killer to win. In fact, any time the villain is not on screen, the movie becomes instantly uninteresting as none of the other characters are worth our time. This is double for the protagonist’s wife. She is such a nagging and stupid character that you may think that the movie has a very low opinion of married females. Considering that the writer/director is a female, this may be…true.

“Who is the worse judge of women?
“Women are!”

The movie makes you pray for her character to just die!

Overall, this shift in tone is quite a shame since the two parts of this movie could work far better independently as separate movies than as a single movie.

The Void of Philosophies
One of the more interesting aspects of the second half thriller part of the movie is a “book.” In fact, the Korean sub-title of the movie (the part after the colon) refers to that book which is called “Liang Chen Murder Record.” In term of the whole movie, this book doesn’t really amount to much. It is just a story device or a McGiffin. However, there is something interesting about what can be inferred about Korean society from it… according to the movie.

So, what is this book? Well, in the world of the movie, it is an obscure Chinese novel about a massacre of some sort. There is not much detail provided. In the real world, it is just a fake book made up for the movie. When the protagonist made up stuff about a serial killer, a phrase he used was traced back to this book by the internet. The book becomes an instant sensation. However, that is not what is interesting. It is that the hoopla ends up leading the real serial killer to this book that blows his mind wide open.

“Knowledge can change your life!”
“Even if you are a psychotic killer”

It is like how the book “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger inspired Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon. Personally I get the sense that this element was meant to be more significant to the movie than it ended up being because of poor execution. Why else would the writer/director add the title of the book to the tittle?

Leaving aside how the book is written into the story, it did lead me to think about how void Korean society is in term of philosophies. I mean what kind of society is Korea that a serial killer has to be led to a crappy book through convoluted series of events so that he can “understand” what he should do? Understand who he is? If you are crazy, that shouldn’t be so hard.

Even though Koreans like to fetishize intellectualism, Korean society is notably void of developed philosophical influences on how to behave and think. When I say developed philosophy, I’m not even referring to philosophies in any type of academic depth. You don’t need to be a philosophy major or scholar. Korea had too many of those folks run around the last 600 years.  I’m just referring to people having access to the mental frameworks provided by philosophies constructed by people far smarter and have more free time than us normal folks. In order to gain access, you do not even need to study philosophy. Reading some books wouldn’t hurt though. In fact, most come in contact with those frameworks by osmosis. There are fragments of them scattered throughout popular culture. It is not that hard to find. While you just go about your day and encounter popular culture, you absorb these fragments. The higher the density of these fragments within popular culture, the more you absorb. This is where Korea is seriously lacking in this area. The developed philosophies barely penetrate popular culture. In fact, even with the so called higher level intellectuals, the situation is not much better is relative terms.

I mean the most developed philosophy in Korea is communism and not even the respectable communism. It is the crack pot North Korean version of communism that is just a joke really. Even this communism as a philosophy is only influential to a small segment of the population. There are religions but Korean religions are more focused on praying for good luck then trying to unpack the philosophy within the religious dogma so that it is applicable to real life. Thus, their influences on real life is limited and fragmented. This means that a majority of the Korean population are not aided by a developed philosophy in their actions. They just react impulsively according to the chaotic emotional states they are at the time meaning there is no consistency to the reasoning that goes into their actions. No wonder why many Koreans are experiencing psychological crises.

So, why is this so? This is a complicated phenomenon. It is partially because, after the down fall of Confucianism, Korean society hasn’t been able to replace it yet. While the overall history of the region is long, the actual history of the “Korean” people is less than a century old. Another aspect to this situation is that no one really cared up to this point. Through my whole academic career in Korea, I’ve never really been taught philosophy or encouraged to think about those things. Even stuff like poetry were just there to memorize and forget after the exam. And I was in one of the top level schools in Korea. You can extrapolate my experience to the majority of Korean society. In addition, Korean popular culture doesn’t really help much. If you have some exposure to Korean popular culture, you may have notice the overall superficiality to the scene.  

What is the point?
Before I conclude, let’s go back to the initial question I raised. “What is funny about journalism?” This is because this question leads to the question of “What is the point of this movie?” After seeing this movie, I’m not sure there was a point.

While the second half of the movie confuses the matter by the villain stealing the movie, “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is the reporter’s story. He is our protagonist. However, what is his character arc? He makes a mistake because of negligence and then tries to cover things up which makes things worse. There is the ordeal with the serial killer but our protagonist basically ends up better than he starts because of the deus ex machina conclusion to the story. He never confesses. The truth never comes out. He keeps all the money and fame. Other than some discomfort with the serial killer beating him up, the character got off scot free without any consequences and seemed to not have learned anything. And what is there to learn? Proper respect for journalism? Ethics? There have been movies about journalists fabricating stories before such as “Shattered Glass” (2003) starring Hayden Christensen. That movies was based on the real life events involving journalist Stephen Glass. However, all of those movies were partially about Ethics. The protagonist in this Korean movie never once talks about the ethics of journalism.

“I’m not sure if he ever heard about them”

The only things that troubles him is the thought of getting caught. That is so Korean of him. Our psychological makeup is revolves around social hierarchy to the degree that nothing else can penetrate it.  In many ways, cowardice is what weights down his soul. It is not guilt or shame. In other words, he is almost an amoral being. The same can be said about all other journalists in the movie. They are willing to do anything if they can get away with it. There is no hesitations in regard to the actual ethics in question. You have to wonder if that is the point the movie is trying to make. Is this what is uniquely funny about Korean journalism?

“I think it is but not sure about what the movie thinks”

I’m giving this movie too much credit. From what I actually see on screen, this is just a happy accident. There is no point to the movie other than trying to pander to the rising dissatisfaction on the state of journalism that Korean society has been slowly developing. My response to that is “what do you expect? Korean journalists are Koreans too. In fact, being Korean vastly overshadow being journalists!”

Sending to print!
In terms of journalism movies, what “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) missed is far more interesting then what it says. As a comedy, it lacks conviction to be the black comedy it wants to be. As a thriller, the only thing it has that elevates it is a good performance from the actor who plays the villain. Sadly, the character is not well used. As a movie, it is structurally problematic as it is basically two movies pasted together in the middle. What can I say more about the movie? It is not terribly directed, there is some decent work with the camera. I got some nice laughs out of the movie. “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo” (2015) is not a great movie. It isn’t even a good movie. It is more of a meh movie.
Review score: C+ or 5.25/10

Foreign movie references
“Liar Liar” (1997)
“Shattered Glass” (2003)
“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013)
“Nightcrawler” (2014)

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