You’ve seen the South Korean movie The Beast before even if you haven’t seen it before. It’s a tremendously familiar generic thriller, and in many respects it really is a case of same old same old. That said, it’s well worth checking out if stylish brutality is your thing.
The plot is slightly serpentine, as it was in the 2004 French film 36 Quai des Orfèvres (36th Precinct) on which The Beast is partly based, but can be boiled down to this: two cops, once partners, now hungry for promotion to a job that’s about to fall vacant, try to out-compete each other in pursuit of a high-profile killer, using fair means and foul, rigging evidence, strongarming witnesses, engaging with the underworld, edging further and further out into illegality as they become more desperate to land the winning blow.
In the original it was Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu as the two cops locking antlers over a series of armed robberies. Here it’s Lee Sung-min and Yoo Jae-Myung as the two detectives in full stag standoff over a case that is kicked into a headline-grabbing phase by the discovery of a dead 17-year-old girl who has been dismembered and her limbs thrown into the sea. Director Lee Jung-Ho makes sure we see the limbs, the wounds, and gives us a shot of how pretty the victim was before the dismemberment.
From here the investigation sets off on its snake-like slither, with the two men trying to track down “the beast”, who turns out to be only a sideshow, as, in fact, is the entire plot. The Beast is much more about style than content.
Let’s just run through a few of the more familiar aspects. A troubled cop with matrimonial issues. One with an insolent relationship to authority. A scene where a car spills water as it’s hauled by a crane from out of a dock. One set in a police gun practice range. Another at a stakeout that ends in a chaotic raid. A scene where a cop is asked to put loyalty to the force over his loyalty to the concept of justice. Make your own list of crime thriller clichés and tickbox along.
A South Korean film from 2019 that wants to be a Hong Kong film from the 1990s, it’s got the sharp, hard look of the noirish HK policier, blue-lit interiors with yellow light slanting through venetian blinds, out on the streets there are neon hues in the background while cops are sweating it out in the foreground. It’s almost invariably night time.
Lee Jung-Ho’s camera is fluid and gorgeous and one of the main reasons to watch. In action sequences especially, like the botched raid, it sweeps around, up and through, canny edits giving us the view from here, then here, then there, as cops swirl into action and fail to get their man.
The soundtrack music is by Mowg and is excellent, very loud in the mix, and stylistically a bit like rave music just before it makes its ecstatic leap – roiling, intense, building.
Lee and Yoo aren’t quite in the Auteuil/Depardieu league but they make for a good pair of warring cops – one more by the book, the other more maverick, though both terms are relative – and are well served by a decent support cast, particularly Jeon Hye-jin as Choon-Bae, a drug dealler recently released from prison and potentially the key to the identityof the killer.
Watch it for its lushly sinister looks, the way the soundtrack bounces the action along and the solid performances rather than storytelling novelty. At two hours 10 minutes it’s 20 minutes too long. If 36 Quaie des Orfèvres can come in at one hour 50, why not The Beast?
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© Steve Morrissey 2022