The Mayor / 특별시민 (2017) Review : Korean Movie introduction

The Mayor (2017) / 특별시민 Review
#ChoiMinSik  #KwakDoWon  #ShimEunKyung  #MoonSoRi #RaMiRan

Audio Version

Movies about politicians / the political process is not an easy feat to pull off with any degree of credibility. Here, I’ll define “credibility” as reflecting the nature/truth of politics rather than the actual reality of it. And I think that a movie having credibility is important in terms of world building; to make the movie reality feel real even though the audience knows it is not. This is important and especially so for more serious subject movies. Thus, many people try to include some kind of credibility within their movies. But it is rare to hit a home run. In most cases, its idealism and naiveté makes the movie veer into preaching or its pessimism makes the movie just devolve into melodramatic circles of in fighting and backstabbing; a reason why it is difficult to clearly separate a political movie of this vein from a gangster movie.  In the mind of the movie, there is no real difference. This is the arena in which the Korean political movie “The Mayor” (2017) steps into. Does it get a thumbs up by the crowd?

Yes! There could be great movies made in each columns. In the first column, you have movies such as The American President” (1995) is a fantasy comedy albeit a very charming one. “Dave” (1993) is the same. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939) is a great movie but awfully naïve about the politics.

The Plot
“The Mayor” (2017)!
Why does the title give me Déjà vu?  Oh there was a movie called “City Hall” (1996) starring Al Pacino and John Cusack about the mayor of New York. It was one of those typical political thrillers about corruption. Think “Wall Street” (1987). Is these two movies --- The Mayor and City Hall ---similar? No and …. Somewhat/maybe yes. The Korean movie “The Mayor” (2017) cannot make its mind up about that.

“The Mayor” (2017) is a 2 hour 10 minute movie about the election campaign of a fictional 2 term mayor of Seoul Korea, the capital of the country. He is running for a 3rd term. Veteran character actor Choi Min-Sik plays the mayor “Byun Jong-Goo”. Veteran character actor Kwak Do-Won plays “Sim Hyuk-Soo” who is himself a national assemblyman and is running the mayor’s reelection campaign. The mayor is running against a female politician Yang Jin-Joo played by character actor Ra Mi-Ran. As the campaign starts heating up, an ideal and young Ad woman “Park Kyung” is brought into the mayor’s campaign. This character is played by Shim Eun-Kyung (age 24 ) who is the youngest among the main cast. She has been in Korean drama such as “Naeil's Cantabile” (KBS2 / 2014) and specializes in playing quirky comedic heroins. Not here though!

With this arrangement of characters and setting, there are two standard stories told in this movie genre. There is the optimistic morality play story; the “rise and fall” story. On the more pessimistic side, there is the "already risen hitting a hurdle but overcoming it through schemes and keep rising to the heights of power" story ; the “bad guys keep winning” story. “The Mayor” (2017) does not veer away from the norm. I’ll not tell you which way it decided to go though. That would be too spoiler-ry for some. I’ll just say that you should not go see this movie to be surprised in terms of plot innovations. Just think Kevin Spacey’s “House of cards” (2013-) mixed with a bit of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) and you’ll get the picture of what this movie is or at least tries to be.

Details matter
What this movie excels in is providing just enough details regarding its world of politics and its characters living in that world to make all the campaign maneuvers and interpersonal interactions/scheming interesting. And these details are well supported by the great cast filled with character actors. Those small details are what they crave and yearn for. For example, actor Choi Min-Sik’s performance --- plays the mayor who is basically Frank Underwood--- is not as flashy as Kevin Spacey’s performance in “House of Cards” but feels more real as the performance is more grounded. The exception with the cast is Shim Eun-Kyung but will deal with her later. In other words, the movie is good at world building. With the movie’s world feeling real to the audience, the politics also feel real even though the movie doesn’t go into any depth about the politics.

You are not told anything about the character’s political ideologies; almost no mention about policies of the candidates. And, even when one is mentioned, it is difficult to understand why it matters since no one cares to specify. The movie just pretends that political ideologies and policies exist and matter by overloading the audience with details that end up adding texture to the world. And this is enough to capture the audience’s attention… well at least for a while. If this was just a slice of life type of movie intended to display the world of politicians to the audience, this may have been enough since that movie is not really about ideology or policies. However, “The Mayor” (2017) is not really that kind of movie… At least I don’t think it intended to be that kind of movie.
For the first half of this movie, you could view it in that vein. It makes you feel like you are being shown the inner workings --- you know inside baseball---of the political world and how the people are truly like in that world. This is the great part of “The Mayor” (2017). Then … there is the remaining hour of this movie.

Where to go?
For modern movie goers, movies over 2 hours is nothing novel. We are accustomed to it to the degree that 90 minute movies feel somehow incomplete. The 2 hours and 10 minutes length of “The Mayor” (2017), in this vein, is not really long for a movie. However, in its last hour, I was reminded of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). Partially because of the character focus of both movies. But more about the fact that the last hour of “The Mayor” (2017) reminded me of the length of a 3 hour movie. Even when “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) reaches its 3rd hour, it is still interesting but you cannot help but feel the weight of the runtime. For this Korean movie, this is not good considering that the length of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) was part of delivering the point of the movie and the same cannot be said of this Korean movie. Not to mention that it is 50 minutes shorter.

The last hour of “The Mayor” (2017) drags albeit not unbearably. The most surface level problem is that the movie ends up being more hyperbolic and melodramatic than the first hour of this movie warranted. It is not quite up to the first episode of “House of cards” season 2 but on a similar level of the last few episodes of the first season of that political TV drama. As with that show, the tone shift devalues the work done to set up this world earlier on which focused on the nitty gritty grounded aspects of campaigning. It took me a few episodes of get back into “House of cards” season 2 after its first episode.

The more serious problem is that, once the setup is done, you are never really sure what “The Mayor” (2017) wants to say. To promote a political view point, there is not enough ideology in the movie. It could be seen as a character piece about the mayor character. However, while the character is developed to the degree that you don’t just see him as an “over the top” and “Larger than life” bad guy e.g. Gordon Gekko of “Wall street”, there is not enough of an attempt to extrapolate and create a comprehensive evaluation of the character. To just promote one’s pessimistic contempt for the political process, the characters are not shallow and over the top enough. Too much character development is done. For a large part, the characters are shown to be mere flawed characters. And not even that bad. None of them have anything on Jordan Belfort of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). The characters’ actions are more grounded and suited to real politicians who are not one to one analogs of gangsters. In addition, this Korean movie is much sanitized in terms of sex. No one has any on screen and the audience are only told of one side character even having sex. I couldn’t imagine actress Shim Eun-Kyung’s character even ever having sex. Considering sex is a very cheap but effective method of villainization, this choice is interesting.

The audience insert character
Now let’s talk about actress Shim Eun-Kyung’s character. She is a young naïve Ad woman getting drawn into the world of politics for the first time. With this kind of character setup, there is some expectation regarding this character’s function within the story. She could be the protagonist or just a narrator. If she is  the protagonist of the movie, she would get corrupted by her new surroundings and influences. At the end, she would have to confront what she had become. In addition, she could be an audience insert character who helps the audience learn the rules of the world the movie is creating. Within this function, she could be the protagonist or just a narrator. Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox character of “Wall Street” (1987) is an example of the audience insert protagonist. Even though Gordon Gekko is the most memorable character of the movie, “Wall Street” (1987) is Bud Fox’s story. Gordon Gekko is just an evil mentor who turns into an antagonist. The flipside of Bud Fox  is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). Jordan Belfort is the protagonist of that movie who uses 4th wall breaking monologues to compensate for the lack of an audience insert character. So no need for an insert character.

What about “The Mayor” (2017)? What is the role of Shim Eun-Kyung’s character? The answer to this question is unclear as the movie seems to not have made up its mind. The character is introduced like an audience insert protagonist in opposition to the mayor character. A Bud Fox to the mayor’s Gordon Gekko! However, this doesn’t come together. For one, Shim Eun-Kyung’s character is not even in the movie that much. Thus, she basically blends into the background immediately until the last act of the movie in which the movies tries to make her into more of an active protagonist. However, there is not much that the movie could do with the time remaining. Second, she basically has no impact on the plot to the degree you could just edit her out without much issue. Third, she has no real interactions nor relationships with the key characters such as the mayor. The movie tries to pretend she has but she doesn’t. Finally, the character has utterly no personality. Shim Eun-Kyung plays that character like a gender neutral cardboard cutout. It standouts being surrounded by character actors who are given decent material to work with.  So, you cannot really say that the character is the protagonist of “The Mayor” (2017).

The Protagonist
“The Mayor” (2017) is the story about the mayor character as much as “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) is Jordan Belfort’s story. It is clear as day and night. Well may be not to the film makers but, for the audience, it is clear. Not only is he the protagonist, he is basically the movie’s antagonist also. What can you say? He is the star. The result is that Shim Eun-Kyung’s character is left afloat without purpose which is a serious problem as she --- from the last act of the movie, you can see that her character had a larger role initially--- was meant to reflect the point of the story. It tried to make her the judge of the protagonist as a representative of the audience. That is the way “Wall Street” (1987) did it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) didn’t need to do this because it left it up to the audience to lay judgement. It is an advantage of having 4th wall breaking direct interaction with the audience. Same thing with “House of cards” (2013-). With “The Mayor” (2017), this attempt failed because the character was neglected throughout the movie. Thus, her sudden change into a moral crusader is laughable and leaves the movie without a point to it.

Writing the point!

Looking at all its components, “The Mayor” (2017) should have been a year defining movie for Korean cinema. In addition to the timeliness --- it is being released just before the emergency presidential elections ---of the subject material, it has great actors, great direction, and great world building. It is vaulting high with the expectation of landing a gold medal for the industry. However, it screws the landing. It lands flat on its face breaking its nose which is a shame. Rather than being a great movie, it is just an okay movie that will be forgotten in a few months.  



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