Film Review: The King

Prosecutor ruined by corruption crawls back for revenge in a Korean box-office hit.
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Breaking records for January openings in its native country, The King revels in its tale of widespread corruption tainting the judicial system in South Korea. The movie's glitzy approach owes more than a little to Martin Scorsese, but its tame disclosures and weird bromances are completely homegrown. Insider politics will render much of the plot incomprehensible to viewers here.

An opening car crash prompts a long flashback in which Park Tae-su (Jo In-Sung) describes his rough upbringing, fraudster dad, and decision to enter law school to become a prosecutor like Strategic Cases chief Han Kang-sik (Jung Woo-sing). After years of study, and a marriage to TV anchor Lim Sang-hee (Kim A-joong), Park finds himself toiling away for little money on 150 cases a week.

One crime catches his eye. A gym teacher sexually assaulted his student. Because his father was a politician, he got off with a cheap settlement. When Park tries to reopen the case, he's brought to meet Han.

Han offers Park a position with Strategic Cases if he will drop the suit. When Park agrees, he embarks on an increasingly risky path with childhood friend Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol), an enforcer in the Wild Dogs gang, and fellow prosecutor Yang Dong-Chul (Bae Seong-woo).

Politicians are blackmailed, elections rigged, foes fed to dogs, and victories celebrated with debauched office parties. Park amasses power and a fortune, only to lose everything when he starts an affair with an actress.

Stuck in a remote outpost, living off money he stole from Choi, Park is approached by corruption watchdog Ahn Hee-Yeon (Kim So-Jin) to testify against Han. Instead, Park comes up with a more ingenious revenge.

Writer-director Han Jae-rim adopts many of the mannerisms of The Wolf of Wall Street—mixing film stocks, altering frame rates, extending POV shots through complicated sets, doctoring archival footage, dropping in rap and heavy metal—in charting Park's rise and fall. Unfortunately, The King is the equivalent of a light PG-13 movie, so its scenes of depravity are limited mostly to downing endless shots of vodka and whisky.

Han Jae-rim ties the plot of The King to Korea's elections, implying at one point that prosecutors blackmailed real-life president Roh Moo-hyun, who later committed suicide. Knowledge of the ins and outs of Korea's political landscape might help make sense of incidents in the movie, but Han Jae-rim is more interested in the alpha-dog bickering between Park and Han than in actually examining corruption.

Jo In-Sung succeeds in suggesting the sickly stench within his character, while Ryu Jun-yeol is all noble sacrifice as his pal. The other actors bellow a lot, stride swiftly down corridors, and fling papers into the air to show they're angry. Like The King itself, they are cheap, gaudy imitations.

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