The eighties are fast but very much not furious in Moon Hyun-sung’s car-driving action spectacle.
“Yo yo! Mix tape to make you drive faster. You get it. Your own vibe. Drift the car with tempo, OK?”
It’s 1988, and a fine time to be in South Korea, what with the upcoming Olympics bringing in wealth and a certain electric buzz to Seoul. Among those basking in the atmosphere are smuggler and ace driver Dong-wook (Yoo Ah-in), DJ Woo-sam (Go Kyung-pyo), cab driver Bok-nam (Lee Kyu-hyung), biker Yoon-hee (Park Ju-hyun) and handyman Joon-ki (Ong Seong-wu), fresh back from some shady transportation work in the middle-east. They are, however, almost immediately caught by the prosecutor’s office.
In order to atone for their numerous crimes, prosecutor Ahn offersthem a deal: to work as runners and mules for loan shark and underground slush fund manager Kang in-sook (Moon So-ri), until they have enough evidence to put her away. The newly formed Sangyedong Supreme team quickly gain employment for Kang, but with the work turning more and more complicated, and Kang’s right-hand man Lee (Kim Sung-kyun) suspicious of the group, things can only get more complicated.
Let’s get the elephant out of room first, because the inevitable comparison – while understandable – is a bit unfair. I’m of course referring to Baby Driver. After all, light-hearted car heists have been thing forever, and if anything we can surely credit the Fast and the Furious franchise for its popularity (and Seoul Vibe’s undercover cop vibe is highly reminiscent) – but it’s also impossible to not think of Edgar Wright’s iconic film when watching this. From the light-hearted tone, its cast of rogues and its funky, mixtape soundtrack it would be surprising if Baby Driver hadn’t played a role in the movie’s inception, but director Moon Hyun-sung and Sua Shin do enough to cement Seoul Vibe as its own thing.
Part of what makes it work is its leads: the five protagonists are all distinct from one another and everyone has very good chemistry. I’m reminded of the leads from the highly enjoyable Space Sweepers, who had a similar harmony. But despite Seoul Vibe’s lengthy runtime, it doesn’t spend a lot of it telling us about its characters. Right at the start when prosecutor Anh is listing their crimes, it’s treated as the big exposition dump and we learn precisely one thing about each character: that Dong-wook has smuggled money (11 years’ prison), that Yoon-hee customises motorcycles (5 years, apparently), Bok-nam doesn’t pay taxes (8 years), Woo-sam breaks hearts (3,000 hours community service) and that Joon-ki was born in the wrong family, whatever that means (3 years repentence).
Thankfully it opts instead to choose a smarter route and show us what they’re like. The only issue is, with so much happening all at once, this takes a fair bit longer than you’d expect, leaving Seoul Vibe as something of a slow starter. By the time it really gets going, you’re probably already checking your watch, and trying not to remember that the film is nearly 2 and a half hours. When it does get going, however, it does provide some really fun moments and decent stunts. In particular, some of the endgame shenanigans are excellent, if occasionally a touch over the top. Then again, no one’s here for realism.
Of course, though it is an action heist film, there are elements of political commentary because, well, it is Korean. References to dictator-cum-president Chun Doo-hwan, who was already on the way out, are plentiful and add some verisimilitude to its otherwise low-key 1980s setting. That said, it’s rather light on any commentary, and spends more time (rightly so) on its character relationships and driving scenes first. Ultimately, Seoul Vibe is a film that isn’t laser focused in any particular direction, which can mean that a lot of scenes can really drag on, but all in all it manages to drift the line between boring and exciting and comes out the other end a fun, albeit messy, action romp. If you’re looking for a decent time-killer, pour yourself a so-beer and put it on.
Verdict: Seoul Vibe is a flawed, sometimes trite, but often highly endearing action film that coasts by mostly on its charming leads.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Music: 7/10, not quite up to par with Wright, but the choice of Victory was nice
Sweating in the morning: Does not make you feel clean, Lee, you freak
Capitalism: At its finest here. I really need me a refreshing coke and a satisfying Big Mac!
Seoul Vibe (2022)
Also known as: 서울대작전, lit. Seoul Grand Operation
Director: Moon Hyun-sung
Writer: Sua Shin
Yoo Ah-in – Park Dong-wook
Go Kyung-pyo – Oh Woo-sam
Lee Kyu-hyung – Bok-nam
Park Ju-hyun – Park Yoon-hee
Ong Seong-wu – Joon-ki
Kim Sung-kyun – Lee Hyun-kyun
Jung Woong-in – Chief Prosecutor
Moon So-ri – Kang In-sook
Oh Jung-se – Prosecutor Ahn
Song Min-ho – Galchi
Kim Chae-eun – Kim Yoon-jae