An entertaining premise is bolstered by some great performances, but slowed by some boring sub-plots
“Let’s do the action scenes for real.”
“You can’t shoot movies like that!”
“Then go if you’re too scared to do it.”
Making a movie is hard, you guys. Sometimes, production limits mean you only have access to certain locations and certain actors for small periods of time. Other times, maybe you’re lucky and your actors are available all the time and your only issue is that your lead keeps sending them to the hospital. That’s the problem that keeps plaguing the makers of the untitled crime thriller during the events of the 2008 Korean film Rough Cut.
It centres around Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-hwan), an arrogant and conceited actor currently shooting a crime film, whose on-set dickery keeps sending his co-stars to the hospital. Gang-pae (So Ji-sub), is a local crime boss who’s always dreamt of being an actor. The two meet briefly at a … brothel? Club? I don’t know. I don’t know sleazy Korean establishments. After an alteraction, the two part ways, with Gang-pae giving Soo-ta a cheque to pay for one of his entourage’s medical bills. After Soo-ta goes too far in a scene and sends another co-star to the emergency ward, he is warned by the film’s director Bong (Ko Chang-seok) to find someone else, or else be faced with a breach of contract.
Desperate, Soo-ta eventually calls Gang-pae, who agrees to do the film on one condition: that the fights between his antagonistic character and Soo-ta’s hero are unstaged, and completely real. Soo-ta agrees to this, and shooting resumes. Tensions grow, both on-set between them and in their private lives, threatening to end producion and possibly even their lives.
Rough Cut’s basic premise makes for a fun, refreshing story filled with good character moments. The big problem is that there isn’t a lot there to make an entire 90-minute (or 110-minute, in this case) film. I mean, there is, but the filmmakers decide not to mine it for all of its ideas. This means that there are several sub-plots scattered throughout. One of them involves Gang-pae helping his incarcerated boss deal with a traitor. Another involve Soo-ta’s refusal to make the relationship with his girlfriend public, andf another one features a sex tape of Soo-ta being released. While none of them are particularly bad, and in fact participate greatly in the development of the two leads, they also feel somewhat overlong and really drag the story down in some places.
It’s a shame because the movie set scenes are a great deal of fun. There’s plenty of drama, action and occasional comedy to make them entertaining in their own right, and there are certainly more than enough ideas floating around to flesh out the whole movie. Instead, they simplify the moviemaking process, and we as an audience have to suspend our disbelief here and there to imagine that they are shooting in chronological order and that they are able to shoot at every possible angle over a single take. But who cares.
If they had injected it with the realities that actually come with making films, it would have been an impossible and majorly boring story to tell. You need to able to ignore studio interference and the concept of stunt doubles to sell the story, and that’s fine. No one watching this wanted an accurate portrayal of Hollywood, or whatever the Korean equivalent of the word is. And while there is definitely a lot of satire, it’s hidden, through small meta jokes (the crew of Rough Cut appear as the crew of the fictional film, for example), and jabs. All of these other omissions are delibarate, so we can focus more on the characters’ interactions and less on studio bureaucracy.
This is where the movie shines. Kang Ji-hwan and So Ji-sub shine in their roles as Soo-ta and Gang-pae, respectively, and So especially. He has a charisma and charm that makes his brutal gangster character actually quite sympathetic. Even when he’s beating people down who owe him money, you can’t help but love him. There’s an effortless cool about him that’s hard to hate. Kang has a tougher job, as his actor character is naturally more dislikable, so it’s his credit that at no point does he become unbearably douchey. Like Gang-pae, Soo-ta has his ups and downs, which contribute to his overall persona. It certainly helps that both actors can really throw down, which gives their “real” fights more power. Not bad for two guys who were largely unknown before.
The rest of the cast isn’t half bad, either. Jang Hee-jin and Hong Soo-hyun play Soo-ta’s girlfriend and ex, with the latter also being his co-star. They have good chemistry, especially Hong, who sparks a pretty entertaining friendship/romance with Gang-pae. Ko Chang-seok is the other noteworthy actor here, playing Bong, the director of the film who always seems at his wit’s end about what to do in his collapsing production. Ko’s scenes are usually goofy enough that one might mistake this for a comedy here and there, but he’s strictly a comic relief in what is otherwise a pretty true-to-form action crime film.
It would have been easy to have made this a comedy. The premise is perfect for jokes, and there were more than enough opportunities to do so, but director Jang Hoon and writer Kim Ki-duk stick to their guns, and decide to keep the drama high. There are moments of lightness, which is definitely good, but its overall tone is serious and it wants to be seen in that way. Rough Cut is about two people with glaring faults who want to be what they’re not, and ultimately realising that, well, they’re probably better off just doing those inital things. By choosing two very likeable leads and giving them easy-to-follow arcs, Rough Cut turned itself from what could have been a boring movie into a geniunely entertaining journey.
Verdict: Smarter and better-acted than most of the action crime films here, Rough Cut is a great debut for director and cast alike.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: Crappy tape/10
Actual rough cuts of the movie: 0. It comes pre-edited!
Blurring of reality and fiction: Very little, thank god
Meeting place of choice: Rooftops, where else?
Moral: Principal photogrpahy is a gruelling, horrible process
Rough Cut (2008)
Also known as: 영화는 영화다(Yeonghwanun Yeonghwada; lit. “A Movie is a Movie”)
Director: Jang Hoon
Writer: Kim Ki-duk
So Ji-sub – Gang-pae
Kang Ji-hwan – Jang Soo-ta
Hong Soo-hyun – Kang Mi-na
Ko Chang-seok – Director Bong
Song Yong-tae – Chairman Park
Jang Hee-jin – Eun-sun (Soo-ta’s girlfriend)