Korean crime dramas are interesting. In a lot of ways, Believer reminds me of a Martin Scorsese film, as our hero cop chases a drug kingpin no one has ever seen. Maybe this is only because Scorsese’s The Departed was a remake of the Chinese crime drama Infernal Affairs, but I think, at some level, it’s the moral ambiguity.
In this film, we focus on two main characters: The cop who has devoted his life to bringing down the mysterious Mr. Lee, and a kid who has grown up within the organization, and works as a sort-of executive assistant to Lee, and coordinates with the more ambitious thugs who do most of the dirty work.
Our story opens with a meth (or whatever) factory being blown up, murdering everyone inside except Rak (Jun-Ryeol Ryu, A Heart Blackened, Little Forest), but including his mother (and injuring his dog). Hero cop Won-Ho (Jin-Woong Cho, The Handmaiden, The Spy Gone North) sees an opportunity to get an “in”—filial piety being a big thing in Korea—and the two go off on an adventure of “catch the mystery man”.
Everybody wants to be in charge, and the hidden nature of things allows for all kinds of pretense and mistaken identity. One of the more gripping moments has Won-Ho’s team first pretending to be buyers for a new drug from foreign dealers (half-Japanese or half-Chinese, I forget, but miscegenation is a clear sign of a ne’er-do-well in Korean movies), then immediately flipping it around to play the same foreign dealers to get to the drug cartel’s buyers.
What you get from this is that Won-Ho is determined to the point of obsession, going so far as to take the brand new (and dubious) foreign drugs which he knows may kill him (and nearly do). He cares about his team, but secondarily to his goal. He’s been pursuing Mr. Lee for years, to the exclusion of all else, it seems, and he is determined to root him out.
Meanwhile, Rak, who has a very flat affect, seems to be rather amoral, but has a curious attachment to, e.g., a couple of peers who are mute and act as the cartel’s drug designers. He’s grown up in the organization, and has adopted its morality as a survival mode, but maybe hasn’t absorbed that morality. One gets the sense that he wants out, more than anything, and that, in a weird way, Won-Ho wants in.
The climax of the movie did not surprise me. It was necessary, in my opinion, to the satisfactory dramatic conclusion of the plot.
The stinger, on the other hand, was somewhat unexpected. A shot is fired. Someone, presumably, has died at the hand of another—or at his own hand. I think I know who, but it was an interesting choice.
Overall, it was an entertaining flick. The Boy and I both liked it. I found it less engaging—actually, in general, I find the Korean crime dramas have to work a little harder to pull me in (than the historical dramas or slice-of-life pictures), and I have to work a little harder to understand what’s going on. (The Koreans may have dumb, fun buddy-cop type flicks, like the Chinese seem to enjoy but I don’t think I’ve seen one yet.)
Worth a watch, for sure.