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There's Not Much Grey in `Public Enemy' Sequel

2005/01/28 Source

By Shim Sun-ah
Yonhap News Agency

In the original "Public Enemy" released in 2002, actor Sol Kyung-gu played an aimless corrupt detective chasing the serial killer who murdered his parents. In the sequel, he portrays a prosecutor of spotless integrity.

Director Kang Woo-seok keeps the same actor and character name of Kang Cheol-jung in the second take but changes the tone and role of his central protagonist to an intelligent legal eagle bearing down on a corrupt public figure, which the director describes as the real enemy of the South Korean public.

During a preview screening for reporters, director Kang said he invented a broader "public enemy" whose crime has a wider social impact.

Gangsters and crooks are no longer described as public enemies in the sequel, which loses some of the bite of the original as it focuses on bringing the upper-class criminal to justice.

The new Kang Cheol-jung is significantly different from his predecessor, who resembled the corrupt police officers in the director's earlier "Two Cops" series.

The detective was shown to take bribes from ex-cons and at one point beats and humiliates a tattooed gangster in a public bath.

Later, he more or less stumbles across the killer while emptying his bowels during a stakeout on a rainy night.

In contrast, Cheol-jung is a professional, always dressed in a pressed black suit. Viewers hoping for a reprisal of the popular but violent detective may be disappointed.

The two-dimensional lead characters, who are either extremely good or incorrigibly evil, also makes for a less exciting sequel.

Gyu-hwan, the first public enemy played by Lee Sung-jae, came across as a man with multiple personalities: at times a high-salaried fund manager and doting father and at others an immoral son who murders his parents after quarreling with his father over money.

New Bad Guy Han Sang-wu (Jung Joon-ho) also suggests a dual personality but his flawless characterization as evil incarnate stretches the bounds of credibility.

Han, a former high-school friend of the prosecutor, commits his crimes through his role as executive director of a private school foundation: embezzling vast amounts of wealth, bribing influential politicians and killing his older brother to take the helm of the foundation.

To underscore the point that Han is the Bad Guy in the movie, the director has him run over a street cleaner who complains about his littering.

Several key elements pander to topical and social issues to make viewers hate him even more. We learn Kang avoided military service by citing his U.S. citizenship. He scorns common people while presenting a courteous and charming facade.

His opposite number in the narrative is a man of fantastic moral fiber, a diligent prosecutor who hates injustice and corruption committed by members of the upper class.

Director Kang seems to repeatedly ask his audience, "Isn't this the perfect symbol of evil that demands to be punished?"

Despite the narrative flaws, however, the director's skill still shines through. Kang established his credentials by selling a record-breaking 10 million tickets for "Silmido", his film about a gang of South Korean mercenaries trained to infiltrate North Korea.

While the characters may be unrealistic, he effectively conveys the prosecutor's sense of injustice as he hunts for the evidence that will damn Han through three hours of running time.

The same theme of brotherly love between men that captivated audiences watching "Silmido" is at play again here but it is weakly handled. When the prosecutors band together to apprehend Han as he threatens to escape the law's reach, slamming their identification cards down on a desk one by one as a sign of unity and resolve, the effect is as mildly and unintentionally comical as the commandos' last stand in "Silmido".

With its strong focus on story, "Another Public Enemy - Public Enemy 2" frequently pays scant attention to the visual aspects of filmmaking.

On the flip side, the director's attempt to shed light on the dark underbelly of Korean society, such as collusive ties between the political and business worlds or corruption in the academic sphere, works well as a social commentary.

Kang's increasing politicization has led some critics to speculate on who may be targeted in a prospective next sequel. Ex-presidents beware.

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