It’s a climb for survival in Lee Sang-guen’s action comedy.
“Our whole lives at this point have been a disaster.”
Korean cinema has gained something of a reputation as one of the most unique in the world, never willing to stick to a single genre movies fluctuate between moments of comedy, drama, satire and terror. The works of Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho are testaments: they’ve built entire careers out of this and have made some of Korea’s most groundbreaking films in recent years. But it’s not just them: we’ve seen this style in movies like Save the Green Planet and Luck Key, and this is very much also on display here.
Exit is the story of Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk), who’s unemployed and something of a loser in the eyes of his family. Despite seemingly having very few interests and goals, he has a passion for rock climbing, spending hours at the park each day doing pull ups. At his mother (Go Doo-shim)’s seventieth birthday party, he bumps into an old friend, Eul-joo (Im Yoon-ah) who is vice manager of the events space. Things suddenly get dramatic when a truck pulls up in the centre of town and begins unloading a deadly gas onto the town. With the street level too dangerous, Yong-nam and Eul-joo must climb to save both the family and themselves.
For about half an hour, Exit is pure comedy. We’re introduced to the main characters and the way they interact with one another. We’re treated to a few bits of foreshadowing but it’s all done very humorously. And then the plot barrels in and hits you like a freight train. In the middle of a goofy scene of the grandparents packing away food, the room explodes and everyone is suddenly thrown into a life-or-death situation. The tension comes in hot, and with the exception of a few sprinkled moments of comedy here and there it never really dies down.
Like I mentioned above, a lot of modern Korean cinema never seems to stick to one genre. Director Lee Sang-guen follows a similar route with his debut film, mixing in humour and high stakes thrills but the blending of styles is never as sophisticated as his peers. But it’s only fair – this is his debut feature and taking that into consideration, Exit is an extremely competent and well executed film that outshines a lot of modern disaster films in the West.
The scenes of the two leads climbing on precarious rooftops and shimmying across ropes are jam packed with tension. Strangely, the fear doesn’t come from the height these characters are at – it’s difficult to fully gauge how sheer the drop is considering how obscured everything is – but rather from the danger of this constantly rising fog. There are the occasional scenes which really induce vertigo, but the focus is really on this ever present and seemingly unstoppable force.
If the film has any faults it’s largely in its characters, who are very flat but played by very affable and relatable actors. Jo Jung-suk and Im Yoon-ah are especially likeable as leads, but their personalities are largely underwhelming: they’re straightforward but not very complex. The same goes for the family who are a wonderful collection of familiar faces, but they really just represent archetypes. It’s fine, and character building isn’t really the focus, but it’s these little moments where Exit’s flaws are more prominent.
But at its core, Exit is a very fun way to kill 100 minutes. It’s the first disaster film I’ve seen in ages where I’ve been genuinely concerned for characters safeties, and the small scale of it helps keep the movie focused and digestible. It was a critical and box office darling during its run in Korea and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a perfect popcorn flick filled with great sequences and charming, if a bit flat, leads and if this is the standard Lee Sang-guen is setting for the rest of his career, then it’ll definitely be one to watch out for.
Verdict: Exit‘s formula might seem tired, but great filmmaking allows it to feel fresh and exciting.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
70: When life begins
Long haired friend: Only in one scene, huh?
Marines: Gotta stick together
Ultimate sign of respect: Giving piggy backs
Sides of buildings: What’s with the giant crab?
Also known as: 엑시트
Director: Lee Sang-guen
Writer: Lee Sang-guen
Jo Jung-suk – Yong-nam
Im Yoon-ah – Eui-joo
Go Doo-shim – Hyeon-ok
Park In-hwan – Jang-soo
Kim Ji-young – Jung-hyun
Kang Ki-young – Manager Goo
Yoo Su-bin – Yong-soo
Jung Min-sung – Elder brother-in-law