[This film review contains a spoiler. Don’t worry, I’ll warn you about it ahead of time. Or space.]
A good friend of mine practically begged me to watch this on her behalf, since she was unable to attend the screenings herself. She (selectively) loves Korean shows and films, and she is particularly interested in crimes and criminals (don’t worry, that’s because it’s her field of study). I was actually interested in watching this for myself as well, but this review certainly wouldn’t have happened if not for her initial spark in my interest.
Cold Eyes is a Korean crime/action film centering around the quiet, reserved Ha Yoon-joo’s (played by Hyo-Ju Han) acceptance into an elite police unit, and the unit’s hunt for the hardened leader of a highly organized group of robbers. The newbie is highly skilled, but terribly inexperienced. With guidance from a chief detective and their zoo of a unit, she finds that there is more to the job than committing minute details to memory–and she must learn quickly, or face the deadly consequences.
This film is actually a remake of a Hong Kong film, Eye in the Sky (HIFF 2007). Cold Eyes was released in Korea this past summer, tickets outselling even Hollywood’s big summer releases. I don’t consider myself well-versed in the realm of Korean action films specifically, but I am aware of Korean media’s increased international popularity within the past several years even–perhaps especially–among the younger population, in the form of “K-pop” (Korean pop music) and “K-dramas”. In fact, one of the actors in this film, Jun-ho Lee (or simply Junho), is a member of a famous K-pop group called 2PM. I presume this is one reason why the lines were long and the theater was packed; while in line, I was told by a HIFF member that Cold Eyes was sold out. I took this as a generally good sign.
From the start, we see that the newbie, codename “Piglet”, is extremely talented in the field. She is able to recall minute details while stalking Chief Hwang, and can note from a large crowd five different people’s simultaneous sequences of actions. In the unit’s van, she draws up a new search field map in a minute, which took the guys at the headquarters a few days to figure out themselves. Upon hiring her, the chief notes her only flaw to be a nervous tic, tapping her finger.
The cinematography and photography were wonderful and fitting. The orchestra of close-ups, focusing, and wide-angle views urges the audience to use their own observation skills, a clever method to help us empathize with Piglet. Faithful to the title, its camera style has us watching for each detail toward solving the crime. We might even observe something that the characters in the movie miss. It also does not focus on the people themselves, necessarily, but on what they are doing and what they are looking at.
Audience members described this film as “action-packed”, and my boyfriend added that it made him “overly aware of his neck”; James, the crime ring leader, always went for the neck and abdomen. This certainly supports the empathetic and engaging impacts of the film.
To contrast with “Western” ideas of crime or action movies, Cold Eyes might not have as many over-the-top shooting or car-chasing scenes, nor any specifically personal development scenes. Any fighting scenes are only as long as they need to be; there is little showcasing of special effects or fighting skills for the sake of showcase. For the most part, we see either the crimes being planned and in-progress, or the police unit investigating the crime scenes. Very seldomly are there any pauses in the investigation process to focus on the characters, too; there are no lengthy bonding sessions in the headquarters’ break room, or intimate scenes in a character’s home. Any personal conversations are always insightful, but nonetheless take place on the field and during work–there’s no time to converse anywhere else, because there’s a time-sensitive job to do. I was impressed by how well-developed each main character was, considering that the purpose of each scene is to drive all of the characters toward the overall goal: to solve the crime.
What Cold Eyes does lack is the characters’ backgrounds. For instance, there was little clear exposition about how Piglet came to be considered for the police unit. I felt dissatisfied with the amount of explanation as to why James, the criminal mastermind (played by Woo-Sung Jung), uses a fountain pen as his weapon of choice. I also thought Piglet’s nervous tic would play a larger role in the story later on, since it was emphasized in the beginning of the film. Its humor, while mostly good and appropriate, once borderlined on toilet humor.
However, for a film of this genre and style, this can all be forgiven. Cold Eyes does not need to delve too deeply and specifically into past personal stories to make a point; it is also not a comedy, and its humor only serves to remind us of the characters’ humanity, nothing more or less. This film deals with themes like moral obligation, professional purpose, and personal loss without overly dramatizing and drawing out scenes that are unnecessary to the crime itself. While the film of course brings to light the importance of sacrifice for the greater good, it also creates commentary on the very idea of determining what the greater good even is. Who and what are truly vital, and what modes of thinking ought we use in different situations? What is right and wrong? This is not necessarily an unaware self-contradiction, but a sophisticated and deliberate manner of acknowledging life as a series of complex, multifaceted events.
[This paragraph contains a SPOILER] This film deals with personal loss quite uniquely. “Squirrel”, played by Jun-ho Lee, eventually becomes James’ victim. Piglet ignores the headquarters’ orders to follow James and runs to Squirrel instead, trying and failing to stem the flow of his blood loss. This shows a major character flaw which ultimately causes the unit to lose track of James. This also becomes the turning point for Chief Hwang’s character as he follows Piglet to tend to Squirrel as well, completely disobeying his own rules. Through the film up to this point, Piglet and Squirrel share a few stolen glances and smiles here and there, but their romance never truly develops–again, they have a job to do. This goes back to the fact that there is not as much dramatic, personal development as in many “Western” films, but this is not necessarily a bad thing here. A loss of what could have been is quite a different from, but just as significant as, a loss of what was.
This HIFF screening was preceded by a brief introduction of the film’s selection by Grace Jo, HIFF’s development assistant and HPU graduate. She also introduced a special guest, Ms. Cha Mae Ok, from Korea’s Zip Cinema which was involved in producing Cold Eyes. She mentioned that the director, staff, and cast were unable to appear at HIFF, but only because they are all on set for the sequel.
While Cold Eyes is a remake, there is nothing stopping it from being a beautiful production in its own right, regardless of fidelity to the original (and adaptations/remakes is another topic about which I could dispel some fallacies forever…). This film was in every respect a pure and intelligent crime-solving film, keeping true to the primary goal that draws each character to each other. It manages to portray the seriousness of the job while still maintaining some light humor and just the right amount of character/relationship development. Overall, I rate this film a 4/5, and I very much look forward to its sequel.