Seen in Jeonju

Executioner (2009)

25th April 2010

executionerWith all my mid-term exams graded and the scores recorded, I had the chance to sit down and watch a dvd–something I had not done for about two weeks due to preparing the aforementioned exams and then scoring them. That took longer than I would have liked because my classes are all large this semester–the smallest having 40 students and the largest,80. Anyway, I could finally see a dvd and I struggled to choose between the Executioner and White Nights, finally choosing the former. I was curious about this film when it was first released back in November 2009. It hung around in the box office for just three weeks and was seen by under half a million people. However, it did fairly well considering that it was up against some tough competition including Good Morning President and 2012. With no action and no CG, this film instead relied on a thoughtful story and solid acting. While it wasn’t really enough to succeed in the box office, is it enough entice someone to sit down and watch it now? Let’s see…

The story opens in a prison where a tough-as-nail warden, Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeong), works. It is the first day on the job for rookie guard Jae-kyeong (Yoo Gye-sang–former g.o.d. member) and he finds that prison life is as bad as he feared it would be. His nervousness and uncertain nature make him a target of the inmates who seek to intimidate him. Well, not all the inmates. One prisoner in particular, nicknamed ’Shrimp Eyes’, has developed a friendship with at least one guard and seeks redemption for his past crimes through treating others with compassion. He often can be seen outside his cell playing a game with Cheol-gu, the oldest guard in the prison.

Jae-kyeong learns that if he is too succeed, or even survive at his job, he has to adapt. He is taught by Jong-ho to use violence if necessary and if he is on duty then ‘anything goes.’  His first time beating a prisoner who nearly killed him is both traumatic and carthatic for him. Although peaceful by nature, he realizes that he must be stronger than those he is trying to keep in line. As Jong-ho tells him, “Animals do not attack something that is stronger than themselves.’ Jong-ho sees his charges as little more than animals and often compares them to trash that must be ‘crushed down.’ Jae-kyeong has no plans to become as unfeeling as his supervisor, but he does begin to change, a fact noticed by his worried girlfriend.

A balance is soon struck at the prison, but it is short lived. There is soon the addition of violent Chang-doo who has been put away for killing dozens of women. Jong-ho quickly asserts his place as leader of the prison before Chang-doo can get out of line, but it turns out to be all for naught. The public outcry over Chang-doo’s crimes is so great that the government decides that he must be executed along with two others to send out a message against violent crimes. One of the people to be executed is a faceless member of the prison, one is the clearly reformed Shrimp Eyes, and, of course, the prime target of the government’s crackdown, Chang-doo.

Cheol-gu is the most experienced at performing executions and he is drafted into assisting even though he asks to be exempt from this dreadful duty. During the 70s and 80s he took part in the execution of many suspected communists, student demonstrators and others whom the government had labelled as criminals. He is wracked by guilt as he now knows them to be innocent. Jong-ho, out of frustration with his staff, volunteers to be one of the executioners even though it is unusual due to his high rank. The other officers hold a lottery to determine who will be the final member of the execution team and Jae-kyeong loses. The main focus of the movie deals with how each of these three characters deal with the growing stress of the impending executions and the effects it has on their lives afterwards.

Director Choi Jin-ho is clearly against the death penalty as am I, however even I found the manner he got his point across to be too heavy handed and lacking in any sort of subtlety. He spends of great deal of time focussing on the guilt felt by the guards–even Jong-ho whose guilty conscience is destroying him from within. Choi also fails to attempt to see both sides of the arguement. Arguments could be made that the unrepentant Chang-doo is completely unreformable and perhaps does deserve to be killed. However, he avoids that issue completely and instead opts to botch the murderer’s execution horribly leaving no room for debate. The director clearly views the executions as murder. He gave us hints of his feelings earlier in the film by having the sister of one of Chang-doo’s victims says she would ‘kill him a thousand times except it would make her no better than him.’

The unbalanced viewpoint was one of the problems I had with the film. All sides of an issue should be explored if anything meaningful is to be discussed. I had another problem with the story. There is a sub-plot about Jae-kyeong’s girlfriend who is pregnant. She doesn’t really want the child but is willing to leave the decision up to Jae-kyeong. He delays making any decision at all as he mulls over the issues and then gets caught up in the drama of the executions. I did not like at all how the movie was paralleling the possibility of an abortion with the upcoming executions. No matter how one feels about abortion or the death penalty, I think most people would agree that they are completely separate issues with absolutely nothing in common. I felt linking them was at best a clumsy way of getting his ideas on the subjects across and at worst an over-simplification of the issues that is insulting to the intelligence of the viewers.

However, despite these problems I did end up liking the film. The acting was quite good, especially Jo Jae-hyeong.  If I had to rate the movie, I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. It could have been much better if a more balanced and thoughtful approach was taken to the plot and more emotional if more time had been spent developing some of the characters.

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