The Drug King movie review: Song Kang-ho’s magisterial performance elevates this mediocre crime drama

Anupam Kant Verma

Apr 07, 2019 14:56:35 IST


Song Kang-Ho’s dependably masterful performance makes director Woo Min-Ho’s The Drug King seem better than it is for a majority of its runtime. Remove Song from the equation and you’d be left with a generic film about the rise and fall of a drug lord, with a smattering of laughs to revive it during its droller than usual stretches. Woo does a lot wrong with the film, but by anchoring everything around Song, adding a few sequences depicting the political climate of the time it is set in and maintaining a blackly comic tone for the film, he manages to make it work as an entertainer, if nothing else. The Drug King possesses just the right whiff of nostalgia — real and cinematic — and familiar cliches to see the viewer’s patience through to the end.

The Drug King movie review: Song Kang-ho’s magisterial performance elevates this mediocre crime drama

Kang-ho Song in The Drug King. Image via Twitter

Song plays Lee Doo-sam, a petty drug dealer who wishes to provide a decent life for his wife and children. His adventures in smuggling hit the big time when he begins exporting meth to Japan. The higher he goes up the ladder of crime, the more deeply enmeshed he gets within the corrupt Korean society of the 70s. He acquires a powerful mistress, starts filling the coffers of government officials with drug money and gets richer and richer. He lives under the delusion of being a patriot for the cause of making Korea a stronger country, his actions in line with the high export policy of the president. But when he begins expanding his operations in Busan and beyond, he runs into an upright public prosecutor on a mission to eradicate the drug trade.

The Drug King is clearly meant to be the story of one man’s passions, greed and downfall. Woo employs black comedy to offset the serious nature of Lee’s crimes. But his treatment of the subject matter betrays a confusion regarding Lee’s actions. Apart from the public prosecutor, everyone appears to be in thrall of him, the director included. The Scarface-inspired sequences at the end, despite the ruin that surrounds Lee and Song’s dynamism, fail to effectively castigate Woo’s picaresque character. Truth be told, it isn’t until the anti-dictatorship student movements engulf Busan that Lee’s character receives a harsher appraisal by the filmmaker.

Woo appears unduly inspired by Hollywood’s tendency to dissolve moral boundaries while depicting the misadventures of immoral men. The black comic tone, a definite relief in the film’s boring stretches, thus fails to be substantially effective. In the absence of a moral compass, it is left to Song’s performance to bolster the film from its comfortable mediocrity. The prosecutor may be the good guy but the director doesn’t appear too sure about the bad guy. That would usually be a plus, rescuing the film from the good versus bad binaries ailing a majority of popular cinema. But The Drug King is a film where Woo sets out to punish a bad man for his misdeeds. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen for Lee’s truism about being a simple man out to make a decent living. And that’s unforgivable.

Another still from The Drug King. Image via Twitter

Another still from The Drug King. Image via Twitter

The Drug King comes to life on two occasions. One, when it is focused solely on Song. Two, when it delves into its subplots. The subplots don’t necessarily offer original fare. But they seem to break the predictable linearity of the plot for a while, in addition to throwing up a few laughs. Strangely, they also reveal more about Lee’s character than the standard narrative that runs through the film.

With a lack of emotional heft to buoy the film, Song Kang-ho’s magisterial performance rescues The Drug King from its slump. It isn’t the first film to make drug dealing seem momentarily cool before making the more accepted moral choice of guillotining the protagonist. But director Woo’s fundamental confusion regarding his protagonist and an abundance of cliches mitigate the impact of a tried and tested story.

The Drug King is now streaming on Netflix.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 14:56:35 IST

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