Of the various genres we’ve experienced in Korean cinema, the crime dramas are often the hardest to follow. Since the plots tend to be deliberately murky and the characters often look alike, it’s very easy to get confused. Similar to watching film noir, however, the point is very often the style, the melodrama, the cool characters—the plots don’t even have to make sense.
So it’s sort of ironic that Policeman’s Lineage is well acted with strongly drawn characters and a very easy-to-follow plot, and ultimately ends up being somewhat paint-by-the-numbers and forgettable. It’s not bad—it’s quite entertaining, even—but it doesn’t stand out four months later (which is when I’m writing this review).
The plot is a classic “rookie by-the-book cop is enlisted by Internal Affairs to investigate a heroic, high-profile cop who isn’t so by-the-book and also seems to be quite wealthy”. Add a dash of “my father was a cop but he’s in jail now” and you get that kind of gangster story James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart cut their teeth on back in the ’30s.
When you go back to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, you have this situation (probably not the first) where the P.I. pretends to be crooked because that’s the best way to deal with crooks. And since then, you have the drama in these sorts of movies coming from the tension of “is he or isn’t he (corrupt)?” A common trope these days is “Well, he is, but not without principles because he sold out in order to do good” or somesuch nonsense. And there’s an interesting chemistry—an excellent chemistry between the two leads—that ends up defusing the tension.
The elder Cho Jin-woong (The Spy Gone North, The Handmaiden) radiates such moral uprightness that even when he physically throws the protégé (Choi Woo-sik, Parasite, The Divine Fury, Train To Busan) down and threatens to kill him, you don’t get a sense that he’s doing so for any venal reason. In other words, you kind of feel like Cho is the only genuinely honest guy around and the real tension is whether or not Choi is going to go “by the book” rather than do the right thing.
So it’s still interesting and enjoyable, but almost along a more “is this going to be a Shakespearean tragedy or buddy cop action comedy?” line. Ultimately it didn’t quite pack the punch of a really dark crime drama or the fun of a action comedy, but it was still very watchable.