Basically meta-cinema for dummies, Pil Gam-sung’s debut feature takes full advantage of its star’s screen image to keep you guessing as to how much he is acting. Hwang Jung-min has cultivated an enviable, respectable career playing a wide variety of types but essentially the same character, whose down-to-earth, self-deprecating attitude lends ironic gravitas even to roles that are comic in nature, like the principled rogue cop in Veteran or the wildly obnoxious mafia scion in New World. In Hostage he plays himself, literally, one of Korea’s biggest movie stars, who is kidnapped by a bunch of psychos and held for ransom. That Hwang’s version of Hwang feels indistinguishable from many of his other parts is probably a function of his star power rather than any representational skills he may possess, but that seems to be Pil’s aim because often the inside jokes are double edged: Is he or isn’t he? An asshole, that is.
As with all Korean crime thrillers the violence is sadistic and relentless, but more importantly celebrity culture is pretty intense in Korea, and the contrast of these two tendencies has a bracing effect on the plot. Driving himself home after a big movie event, Hwang parks his car at a convenience store and walks the rest of the way to his house, presumably because he’s had a few drinks and is afraid of being seen by paparazzi. It just so happens that a bunch of criminals who’ve been carrying out kidnappings in the neighborhood pass by and spot Hwang. “Jackpot,” says the buzz-cut crew leader Dong-hun (Ryu Kyung-soo), who taunts Hwang as a fan and then beats him before trundling him into their van and spiriting him to their woodland lair. In classic hostage-movie style, Hwang awakes tied to chair in the company of two other kidnap victims, one of whom is quickly dispatched by the sleepy-eyed ringleader, Choi (Kim Jae-bum), ostensibly because he hasn’t come up with his own ransom yet but mainly to impress on Hwang that Choi means business.
The subtext of what entails is that Hwang, thanks to his extensive experience playing everything from prosecutors to cops to hardened criminals to victims, knows what he needs to do to escape, though he’s confounded by the fact that his co-hostage, a young woman, also has to be saved, as well as by the unpredictability of the kidnapping crew, one of whom is a fan and annoyingly keeps demanding Hwang recite lines from his most famous movies. However, as the story develops and the police start following leads that expose the kidnapping ring and the press finds out that Hwang is a prisoner, Pil gets caught up in the action movie prerogatives. In the end Hostage becomes just another efficient, bloody, twisty Korean thriller; which is not a bad thing at all, but we never find out what kind of person Hwang really is. He certainly can’t be this guy, who turns out to be a real ass-kicker. But that was probably intentional all along.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
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photo (c) 2021 Next Entertainment World & Filmmakers R&K & SEM Company