If The King’s Letters was the sort of film that couldn’t be made in America because patriotism is considered toxic, EXIT is the sort of film that can’t be made because we have no sense of humor any more that we are aware of. This is an action-comedy film that actually manages to balance both well and keep you both laughing and in suspense.
Our hero is Yong-nam. When we meet him, he’s being ogled by the old ladies in the park as he does a routine on the iron bars. But that’s about all the love he gets: A group of kids, including his own nephew, see him and refer to him as “IBM”: Iron Bar Man. (I have no idea how that translates, even after watching The King’s Letters.) His nephew pretends not to know him, and we see that he’s basically a loser.
There’s not a huge amount of back story here. He was a competitive mountain climber in college, and good at it even though he gets beaten by his crush Eui-Joo. She also LJBFs him, and it’s not really spelled out if this is the reason for it, but in the subsequent five years, things have not gone well for Yong-nam. Living with (and taking abuse from) his parents, berated by his meddling sister, no job, no prospects, no real ambition, and hung up on this 5-year-passed crush so much that he schedules his mother’s 70th birthday to be held at The Dream Garden, because Eui-Joo works there. (And he immediately tries, unsuccessfully, to fool her into thinking he’s not a loser.)
Up till now, we have a wacky dysfunctional-family comedy in that Korean fashion where everyone’s a little bit mean, very emotional, exaggerated—much like the horror movie The Host. And then a terrorist smashes a truck full of toxic chemicals into a building down the street, creating a poisonous cloud that is building up in the streets and rising upward. Yong-nam saves his sister and nephew’s life when they run down a street and try to escape in a car, but people are dying left and right rather horribly.
This is the kind of tonal shift that the Koreans and Japanese do so well and it works because, while the characters are comical in a lot of ways, they are meant to be real. You sympathize with Yong-nam, even as you want to slap some sense into him. The parents, the sister—they all do what they do from a place of love. You want them to live.
I don’t need to tell you, I hope, that Yong-nam has to save the day by climbing. And working with Eui-joo, they get everyone to the roof and rescued by the helicopter. Except there isn’t room for both of them. When the basket takes off, she gives a speech about how, being the (recently promoted) hotel vice manager, the guests have to come first. Meanwhile she’s crying under her breath “I wanted to get in the basket.”
And that’s kind of the running theme throughout: The two of them perform increasingly daring stunts, but they are terrified each time. And about the third time they sacrifice themselves so that others might live, they start to get kind of hysterical and pissed off. Yong-nam has an actual tantrum at one point, when it looks like death is certain. The movie isn’t afraid to showcase their skills while still giving them more than a modicum of humanity. At one point, when Eui-Joo thinks Yong-nam has abandoned her, she boldly scales the side of a small wall to get away from the poisonous gas—only to find Yong-nam climbing up a ladder on the other side (one she could have easily reached) with gas masks.
In the end, it is the Korean people who give our heroes their last shot by way of a flock of drones they’ve flown in to watch the two survivors struggle. And while you kind of assume that they’re going to survive—this is meant to be a fun summer action flick after all—you don’t really know because, hey, Korean. They’re not afraid to mix up some spice with their sweet.
It was a whole lot of fun and I don’t expect to see a better new movie this summer.