Hollywood action films have long abdicated the realm of gritty believability in favor of awe-inspiring excitement beyond the border of suspended belief. This has been in the interest of creating accessible, and by most estimations, entertaining franchises, from The Fast and the Furious to Mission: Impossible. And yet, this suspension of disbelief brings with it a suspension of tension in a manufactured world where anything seems possible, and as such, nothing is unexpected. How can a hero be cornered if the only logic of the universe they inhabit is defined by them being bound to triumph?
Enter Park Hoon-jung’s latest neo-noir action thriller, The Childe, which returns the filmmaker to the real world of gangsters and con men after his brief departure to work on the telekinetic supernatural fare of The Witch series. Park’s salient counter to the recent benign, sterile gleam of American action films follows Marco (Kang Tae-joo), a low-level Kopino boxer, as he searches for his estranged, wealthy Korean father in order to secure funds for his mother’s life-saving surgery. After a brief investigation, Marco learns that his father is also dying, and finds himself contending with the forces of the Korean underworld that have aligned against his family. Soon enough, Marco is introduced to Nobleman (Kim Seon-ho), a quasi-sociopathic contract killer with a penchant for Mercedes-Benz cars and new fashion and a persistent, unnerving smile; he weaves in and out of Marco’s world, a terrifyingly pervasive presence that confounds both Marco and the viewer.
Almost immediately, the violent tension of The Childe escalates to explosive bloodshed; in the slight gaps between the curtains of blood, Marco attempts to piece together who it is exactly that’s trying to kill him, who’s trying to save him, and why. Beyond its beautiful action sequences, which are navigated with a photographic fluidity as compelling as the engrossing fight choreography that it captures, The Childe is distinct in that it’s a new action film featuring a plot with moments of genuine surprise. That said, make no mistake: The Childe is steeped in the tradition of venerable neo-noir thrillers, both Korean and otherwise. The film owes a clear stylistic debt to films that have come before it, but the pleasure in it comes from Park’s ability to fully inhabit a world, rather than create a new one — and by rooting his characters in the realism of that world and all its pain and fickle inconsistencies, he does create a somewhat novel environment where stakes feel tangible, because survival is never guaranteed for anyone.
Part of this can be attributed to Kim Seon-ho’s triumphant big screen debut as Nobleman — a charming, enigmatic, and outright terrifying contract killer who seems to shapeshift, scene-to-scene, as he pushes Marco along his fateful course. With Nobleman, Kim and Park subvert audience expectations by presenting a character who adheres to those preconceptions but exploits them through a dynamic presence, ultimately coming to feel like the true protagonist of the film. The same, though, can be said for Kang’s Marco, a tough, down-and-out boxer who finds himself running for most of the film, scared to fight, and terrified to touch a gun.
The only facet of The Childe that feels underexplored is Marco’s Kopino heritage, which rarely seems to amount to more than the target of discriminatory gags and a plot necessity to drive the action forward. By only broaching the subject, it feels as though Park undermines its gravity, which weakens the foundation of the film upon which he constructs a strong, steady stream of first-class action. With its wicked charm and invigorated take on the tried-and-true tradition of neo-noir thrillers, The Childe does a service not only to the films that came before it, but proves instructive for those to come after on how to draw out freshness from the familiar.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27