Characters from opposing sides create psychological tension in off-beat drama of business and politics gone very wrong | Film review by Jane Lee (Winter 2020 issue)
Inside Men (2015), Directed and screen written by Min Ho Woo, (based on a webtoon by Tae-ho Yoon)
Set in modern-day Seoul, Inside Men dissects the corruption and connection among the press, big business, and politics in Korea. The film opens with retired, now clean-cut gangster boss Sang Goo Ahn (Byung Hun Lee) at a press conference as he announces proof of a slush fund intended to back conservative presidential candidate Pil Woo Jang (Gyeong Young Lee) set up by giant conglomerate Mirae Motors ( a probable pseudonym for Hyundai Motors) and Hangyul Bank (a probable pseudonym for Hana Bank).
After this opening scene, the film flashes back two years, explaining what led up to the announcement. Then we return to present-day and learn of the aftermath of Ahn’s announcement. The film’s central theme is the corrupt, destructive relationship among conservative newspaper columnist Kang Hee Lee (Yoon Sik Baek), Mirae Motors Chairman Hyun Soo Oh (Hong Pa Kim), and presidential candidate Pil Woo Jang.
Rooted in shared secrets of scandal, sexual perversion, bribery, and murder, the nature of the trio’s relationship unfolds in graphic scenes throughout the film. There is no trust, respect, or compassion among them, and while they need one another, they become so intertwined that one is not distinguishable from the other. Together, they create an evil, self-serving, destructive beast that lives at the center of the film.
Ahn, a long-time henchman of Lee’s, having done his dirty work for years, is driven initially by loyalty to Lee who he sees as an older brother. But once Ahn’s hand is sawed off by Oh’s men, he is motivated only by revenge for the rest of the film. Joining Ahn in an effort to bring down the evil trio, is prosecutor and former cop Jang Hoon Woo (Seung Woo Cho), an unlikely ally. Because Woo adamantly refuses to give political favors for professional promotion, he lacks the required status and connections to move up in the prosecutor’s office. He seeks justice by bringing the corrupt down.
Is Inside Men worth the two hours? Yes. It is entertaining, dares to step away from traditional plot-lines, and sheds light (although exaggerated) on a less-flattering aspect of Korea that many may have thought was abandoned on the country’s path to development and modernization.
Byung Hun Lee does best in political crime-action, gangster, hero roles. He also played similar roles in Joint Security Area, Iris and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The director added exaggerations and absurdities to the physical portrayal of Lee’s character Ahn in this film. There are characteristics that are endearing and naïve which in turn, generate sympathy for and support of his character. The pre-revenge Ahn is a vivid image in this film; his bright green double-breasted suit and slicked-back pompadour smiling brightly as he brags about information that will help Lee. This contrasts starkly to the revenge-driven, disheveled Ahn, with his nearly comical version of a prosthetic hand, eating a pot of ramen on a rooftop.
Director Woo’s choice to illustrate such a shift in Ahn’s appearance, and choosing not to do so with the other primary characters creates a striking visual character study.
Refreshingly, the storyline does not center on a romantic relationship. Although Ahn gets helped by a woman friend in one of his failed plots for revenge, she is not pivotal to his identity, to the outcome of the story, or to the motivation of any of the primary characters. The primary relationship is between Ahn and Woo. In a Korean movie, this is somewhat unusual, so it is a refreshing variation to see the story develop around the friendship of two men.
Ahn is initially vulnerable and needs protection from Woo, who is only motivated by getting proof of a crime from Ahn. This relationship soon unfolds as the two find they are more similar than different. Ahn’s insistence on revenge parallels Woo’s obvious law-abiding dedication to justice; both are underdogs, and both are willing to make personal sacrifices to make wrongdoers pay for what they have done.
The idea of two characters from opposite backgrounds teaming up against a common evil is not new to film, but the relationship between Ahn and Woo is one of a daring duo rooted in bro-mance. The absence of a romantic plot line also helps us to pay attention to the seemingly indestructible deep-rooted connections in Korean society between business and politics.
In the recovery of Korea from the devastation of war, we know about the interdependence of the federal government and booming chaebols (private mega-companies) like Samsung, Hyundai, and Daewo. That relationship was foundational in Korea’s rapid industrial development, what many call the “miracle on the Han.” The relationship filtered down to the individual level, where social and financial mobility was impossible without the help of regional, college, school, or social status connection, and cronyism was rampant.
Since then, Korea has become a major player on the world stage in trade, sports, entertainment. It seems that, with the addition of a new international network, that these old practices would have fallen by the wayside, but they have not. Inside Men reminds us of the depth to which these practices are still at the roots of professional and personal advancement in Korea.
We are left wondering, who are the Inside Men? Are they the few and elite who hold the financial and political reins who remain unseen and are elusive to the unconnected? Or are the Inside Men those who understand this perverted system and can get inside it long enough to manipulate it to their advantage?
Inside Men is a somewhat traditional story of good versus evil, but the film’s star-studded cast is made up of veteran actors who make the story believable. Leaving viewers feeling entertained and informed, it is no wonder that Inside Men is the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time in South Korea.