This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all movies, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
Directed and written by Park Hoon-jung (writer of I saw the devil), and starring Tae-goo Eom as Park, a wronged mobster who has to flee from mainland South Korea to Jeju Island in order to survive; along the way, he will meet Jae Yeon (played by Yeo-bin Jeon), a woman fighting her own struggles. Night in Paradise is, first and foremost, a slow-burn crime-drama; there are some riveting and highly-thrilling action scenes throughout, but the focus is on character and writing first. It’s a very stylish movie, with lots of gore and contrasting saturation levels so that the reds seem more like goo, while the lighting pierces through the grim look of the world. It lacks new ideas or unique executions of things we’ve seen before, and the lack of an interesting protagonist keeps the movie from being truly great, but it does what it sets out to do; a Korean crime thriller where style influences and informs the substance.
That ethos would always create something that most people either hate or love, something that can be seen as either a positive or negative; take the protagonist for example. As a character it is vital to make the audience understand him, as well as drive forward the story. On the one hand, Park is wholly unlikeable because he embodies the bleak – almost nihilistic – mood that informs the entire movie; he has a goal, but doesn’t really desire anything. He feels defeated by his life and has no urge to keep living it. That is why he is a bad protagonist, because it feels like I am watching a lifeless husk coasting through events with no real growth or motivations; on the other hand, that is precisely what would happen in a story with this bleak mood. Defeated characters simply trying to survive another day by drinking and smoking their way to another day, because that is what they have been doing forever and they don’t know what else to do. In a “style over substance” movie, it is less important to “get” or “believe” what happens or the metaphorical meaning behind it, than it is to experience it through the audiovisual and experiential means that movies can provide; in a “style informing substance” movie, it makes sense that it will also influence the characters and the writing.
That’s not to say that Hoon-jung doesn’t care about his characters or simply wants to make something that looks cool; I enjoyed this movie, because I got what he wanted me to get. I was completely immersed in the bleak style of the movie and watched what happened through that perspective. Visually, the movie offers up a wonderful experience with different levels of saturation and an overall darker palette; it makes the slower scenes build suspense and the action-heavy scenes pop with goo-looking gore and exaggerated amounts of blood and pain. Speaking of the action scenes, Night in Paradise continues the long tradition of Asian movies (specifically Korean cinema) showcasing their incredible talents as action masters; make no mistakes, this is a crime-drama with a few set-piece moments, but those moments are so well done that they deserve to be mentioned as one of the highlights. Moreover, the score’s melodramatic, poignant tone with heavy strings and a mellow mood, elevates the entire experience.
Despite the movie being best served as an audiovisual experience first, a character study second, I do want to praise some aspects of the writing. The characters are interesting when the movie manages to immerse you in its mood, and the dialogue between the characters is really entertaining (and at times darkly comedic); the ending also provides that raw emotion Korean cinema has become known for and, while some will say it is “too little too late”, I would agree with the latter part not the former though. Having said all of that, I do still think the protagonist being so uninteresting to follow is a major issue that leads to certain other complaints I have; mainly the story being too formulaic and generic to care about. It is a standard gangster, crime-drama story with little in the way of new ideas. It also doesn’t help that the unifying vision of the atmosphere and mood of the movie didn’t translate as nicely to the acting; leads Tae-goo Eom and Yeo-bin Jeon both deliver good, distinct performance with Eom preferring a more subdued delivery, while Jeon being a more emotionally driven character delivering some great energy in her frequent outbursts or bleak monologues. Everyone else is…a mixed bag at best; Seung-Won Cha as Director Ma delivers his best impression of Harvey Keitel or Al Pacino from similar roles, Park Ho-San as Young is a bit too animated in his portrayal of a “complicated” character, while everyone else just feel like they are too over-the-top for this movie.
To recap, I went in expecting a great Korean crime-drama and all that entails; bleak, revenge driven stories, with well-written characters, excellent directing and acting, spiced up with wonderful action set pieces. I got some of that, for sure, but mostly I got something else that I was FINE with; a serious, bleak experience with some neat stylish choices and characters that I both loved and hated, alongside some great action. There are questionable decisions in the acting and some of those stylish choices proved more off-putting than immersive, but I would still recommend checking Night in Paradise out.