HOPELESS (화란) (2023)

Genre: Drama
Director: Kim Chang-hoon
Cast: Hong Xa-bin, Song Joong-ki, Kim Hyoung-seo (BIBI), Jeong Jae-kwang, Yu Seong-ju, Park Bo-kyung 
Runtime: 2 hr 4 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence & Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures and Purple Plan
Official Website: 

Opening Day: 19 October 2023

Synopsis: For us, there are things we just have to do. A town with no future, and no hope. Seventeen-year old Yeon-gyu (HONG Xa-bin) was born in this place, and has never been to anywhere else. While enduring the repeated violence inflicted by his stepfather, he saves up money in the lone hope of moving to the Netherlands with his mother. Chi-geon (SONG Joong-ki), born and raised in this town, is now a mid-level boss in a criminal organization. Having learned early in life that this world is hell, he gets by in his own way. One day Yeon-gyu gets into a fight to protect his stepsister Hayan (KIM Hyoung-seo). Unable to raise the settlement money, Yeon-gyu is helped by Chi-geon, and in that way Yeon-gyu comes to start a new life as a member of Chi-geon’s gang. Although scared and awkward, Yeon-gyu gradually adjusts with the help of Chi-geon who is like an older brother to him. Having earned Chi-geon’s trust while fighting to survive in the gang, Yeon-gyu begins to fall into more and more dangerous circumstances. In order to escape from hell, they become a part of it. 

Movie Review:

With a generic title like “Hopeless”, one wonders what the film is about without reading the synopsis. There seems to be nothing to cheer about in this debut feature from Kim Chang-hoon, and to this writer’s dismay, it is indeed a joyless movie that will dampen your spirits further if you are already feeling down and out. But if you are a fan of the baby faced Song Joong-ki, you’d find eye candy in this noir thriller which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

The movie’s protagonist is Yeon-gyu (newcomer Hong Xa-bin), a teenager who grew up in a family which isn’t far from picture perfect. As if being surrounded by violent bullies in school isn’t enough, he has an abusive (and alcoholic, of course) stepfather at home who doesn’t hold back when it comes to beating the poor boy up. He gets along okay with his stepsister, but his ultimate dream is to escape this brutal environment with his mother.

Circumstances find Yeon-gyu getting involved with a local gangster Chi-geon (Song doing a great job to appear rough and tough on screen despite his boyish look), who takes him in a part of the gang. Chi-geon shows Yeon-gyu the way of life, and asks him to call him “big brother”. However, as Chi-geon isn’t the one calling the shots all the time, danger still lingers in the form of a ruthless mobster boss who is just going to make Chi-geon’s life murkier – things will become hopelessly devastating as the film approaches its finale.

To say that this film doesn’t spark happiness (except for Song’s fans who will enjoy every time there is a close up shot of the actor) is an understatement. The story starts off by painting a very grim picture and things do not get any better even after Yeon-gyu meets Chi-geon. You’d think as a “big brother”, Chi-geon would be all protective and make things easy for the timid and awkward Yeon-gyu. But nope, he shows him that even with a mentor, things can be ugly if you don’t get your act together. This is shown in an excruciating scene where Chi-geon stomps into Yeon-gyu’s house after something doesn’t go according to plan, and the exchange ends with an entire fingernail being yanked off as viewers squeamishly imagine the pain.

Amidst the violence, there are some quieter and thoughtworthy moments in the film. One particularly memorable scene sees Yeon-gyu and Chi-geon at a picturesque lake, and the latter begins sharing stories. Then you realise the poignance of his words, and begin appreciating the things he has done for the Yeon-gyu. Without giving too much away, the last on screen encounter between the two guys is almost too heartwrenching to watch.

In terms of story development, nothing very dramatic happens during the 124 minute movie. The slow burner takes its time to make audiences realise the gloomy mess that the characters are in, and how there isn’t really a way out. Even if any of them manage to leave the town, is there really a better life waiting out there? One can argue that if you do not try, you would not know. But things just don’t look good from whichever perspective you try to see the situation from – and that’s when you feel that the movie title is a very apt one.

Movie Rating:

(This moody noir thriller won't spark any joy, but it is a solid drama with engaging performances from Hong Xa-bin and Song Joong-ki)

Review by John Li 

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