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An explosive import

Korean thriller Rough Cut is worth the effort to track down

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Actor So Ji-Sub
K.W. Jeter

If a filmmaker such as Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk registered at all on the fickle scales of the American movie-going public, he’d probably be as detested as much as he’s managed to make himself in his home country, but for different reasons. There, he gets brickbats thrown at his head for politically incorrect crimes such as making audiences think that supposed victims of sexual predation might have their own manipulative agendas, most notoriously in his masterpieces Bad Guy and Samaritan Girl. Here, he’d probably be lynched just for making audiences think at all.

It’s an indication of the schizophrenic nature of the Korean film community’s attitude toward its homegrown troublemaker—many might hate his movies but still root for him as a prizewinner on the European festival circuit—that his recent branching out to film production, rather than just directing his own material, was generally seen as a good thing. The product of a self-taught filmmaker, even Kim’s best efforts have always been a little rough around the edges. If nothing else, giving the director’s bullhorn to one of his protégés might result in something a little glossier, that would make the angular, disjointed storylines of his scripts easier to take.

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Rough Cut
Four stars

Such proves to be the case with Rough Cut, out earlier this year on Korean theater screens and now making its way to the international film markets. First-time director Jang Hoon was Kim’s assistant director on his 2005 The Bow and more recent 3-Iron. In translating his mentor’s screenplay to film, Jang shows himself to be, frankly, a bit more of a visual craftsman than the guy who gave him his start. It also helps, though, that Rough Cut is quite a bit more of a traditionally paced “action” film than Kim’s own increasingly time- and narrative-annihilating audience bafflers.

Which still leaves Rough Cut way to the left of anything that’s going to show in movie theaters around here any time soon. Kim’s basic plot premise, of a “tough guy” movie actor who confuses his fabricated onscreen persona with real-life gangster cojones, has been done enough times before to have become a staple Hollywood formula, a tried-and-true way for fading Schwarzeneggers to show that they can yuk it up as well as fire off the big cannons and flex their muscles. Where Kim’s script, and Jang’s simpatico direction of it, skews into different territory is the degree to which Rough Cut becomes a brooding meditation, à la Kim’s earlier Bad Guy, on how the embrace of one’s dreams destroys dreamer and dream alike. Rough Cut’s actor protagonist meets up with his real-world gangster counterpart … and it’s the gangster who takes the existential hit. Maybe that’s because the gangster has an actual life and world to lose, however sordid they might be, whereas the tough-guy actor has been mouthing scripted lines for so long that he can accept the illusory nature of his existence with a certain equanimity. His world might not be real, but it’s still home to him.

Any movie associated with Kim Ki-Duk would be a long shot to win awards in Korea, but Rough Cut managed to scoop up two Critics Choice Awards (the Korean equivalent of our Oscars) for its leads, Kang Ji-Hwan as the tough-imaged actor and So Ji-Sub as the genuinely dangerous hoodlum. The U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in finding out about the astonishing screen presence of Korean actors; So Ji-Sub in particular, with his sharp-angled features, thousand-yard gaze and general air of simmering violence, makes most of Hollywood’s pretty boys look like stale kimchi.

Your chances of seeing Rough Cut on the big screen, at least here in Vegas, are close to nil, but the film’s English-subtitled DVD version is slated to go on sale January 7. With no release outside Korea scheduled yet, it’s not even on the Netflix radar—but if you’ve got an all-region DVD player and a credit card good at one of the online distributors such as yesasia.com, your mailbox could eventually have stuffed in it just about as much dynamite—of the illusory sort—as postal regulations will allow.

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