SYNOPSIS: A petty smuggler from Busan dives headfirst into illicit drug trafficking in the 1970s and rises to become king of narcotics exports to Japan.
For a movie about crack, ‘The Drug King’ could indeed do with some of its own product.
Based on the true story of the infamous drug lord Lee Doo-sam, who grew from a small-time criminal in the contraband business into the head of an enterprise manufacturing and exporting crack, the film takes what could have been a fascinating real-life portrait of crime and corruption and turns it into something dull and trite. How tedious is it? Well, let’s just say it took us about three sittings just to get through this two-and-a-quarter-hour long slog.
Confounding the definition of an epic with length, writer-director Woo Min-ho seems utterly indifferent to pacing right from the start. So the proceedings unfold with little urgency from the moment we first meet Doo-sam lending his expertise in goldwork to a gang of contraband traders smuggling goods between South Korea and Japan, which led to his discovery of a growing market for methamphetamine (or ‘crack’ in street parlance) in Japan. Doo-sam’s subsequent fall-and-rise includes a betrayal by his own boss to the KCIA (or Korea’s National Intelligence Service), a brief stint in prison which proves surprisingly advantageous, and a combination of old and new contacts in order to get his methamphetamine business off the ground.
Though by no means gripping, the first hour is at least moderately engaging, especially watching Doo-sam apply his street smarts to assemble the various parts of the operation. In particular, a certain Professor Baek (Kim Hong-fa) is probably one of the film’s most colourful supporting characters, a renowned chemist who works out of a laboratory inside a pigpen in order to convert the raw materials smuggled from Taiwan into high-quality product that Doo-sam proudly brands ‘Made in Korea’. Alas, rather than picking up momentum, the storytelling only grows more sluggish from that point on, even with the introduction of a key supporting character in Bae Donna’s lobbyist Kim Jeong-ah whom Doo-sam courts to gain favour with high-ranking officials that she has deep connections with.
In fact, it isn’t that the movie is out of ideas. For one, there is the hard-nosed prosecutor Kim In-gook (Jo Jung-suk), whose dogged investigation into Doo-sam’s illicit business could have been a taut game of wits. For another, there is Doo-sam’s relationship with his faithful wife Sook-kyung (Kim So-jin), who stands by him steadfastly during his earlier downfall but whom he betrays by committing adultery with Jeong-ah. And last but not least, there is Doo-sam’s brash cousin Doo-hwan (Kim Dae-myung), who lent a significant hand in helping him build up his business but whose brash personality ultimately becomes his greatest liability.
Yet, even with these parts, the movie cannot seem to muster a decently compelling narrative for its own good; instead, neither of these subplots build up to anything substantive, ambling towards a final confrontation between Doo-sam and law enforcement at his sprawling mansion. To his credit, Woo tries to inject some political context into Doo-sam’s turn of fortunes, as mass government demonstrations in the late 1970s and the assassination of President Park Chung-yee sparked a sea change in the country’s political landscape that also saw many of Doo-sam’s corrupt officials deposed; yet, at well into the third act, that perspective is simply too late to inject much heft into the plotting.
Indeed, ‘The Drug King’ leaves you feeling even as you’re watching it that it could have been so, so much more. There is potential here for a taut crime thriller not unlike those which you can also access on Netflix, including ‘Narcos’ and ‘Sicario’; unfortunately, little of that potential is realised in a film that doesn’t quite build itself to anything, or know what it wants to say. Even the usually reliable Song cannot quite seem to get a handle of the titular character, unsure whether to make him a sympathetic figure or someone menacing yet revered. The period setting is rich all right, but that alone cannot sustain a movie that runs more than two hours.
So, like we said at the start, this is a movie that needed more highs and more lows, instead of the monotony that it waddles in.
Review by Gabriel Chong