‘For the Emperor’: Vanity of wealth, power

By Korea Herald

Newly released action noir takes audiences to Busan for a fierce fight

  • Published : Jun 12, 2014 - 20:18
  • Updated : Jun 12, 2014 - 20:21

In June, movie theaters have been dominated by Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” Hugh Jackman and the other “X-men” characters and Angelina Jolie in “Maleficient.” They attracted 70 percent of movie goers so far this week, according to the Korean Film Council, leaving little room for Korean films to edge in.

So when Korean action film “For the Emperor” opened in theaters Wednesday, it was dogged by one question: Will it differ from the other action films premiered in the past weeks?

“It’s about the aftermath of men’s endless desire and greed,” said director Park Sang-jun. “I wanted to show the tragic ending to the constant quest for money and power. Eventually, there is nothing left, masculinity being in vain.”

Lee Hwan, played by Lee Min-ki, is a promising baseball player until he hits rock bottom when he is caught in a match-fixing scandal. With nowhere to go, he comes across Sang-ha (Park Sung-woong), a loan shark boss and organized crime mob leader in Busan.

Hwan and Sang-ha team up and successfully take control of all Busan gangs, collecting money through gambling and lending, and even killing tens and hundreds of people. When outer threats come under their control, Hwan and Sang-ha face off in a cutthroat, winner-takes-all rivalry.

Lee Min-ki (top) and Park Sung-woong star in the action noir movie “For the Emperor.” (1st Look)

The plot is simple and combines all the elements of a bloodstained Korean mob flick, such as friendship, loyalty, love, revenge and betrayal, as well as plenty of fighting. As the movie is based on an adult cartoon, the movie’s violence and sexual content doesn’t leave much out. Scenes are fast-paced and stirring, set in different locations of Busan including the fish market, downtown urban spots and the port area.

In flashy and somewhat manic scenes, the protagonist Hwan’s actions with his bare hands were impressive, given his skinny model physique ― even if the reasons for his actions are ambiguous. The motive of his crime in the first place is unclear, and moreover, his intention to climb the ladder of the criminal organization and seek revenge on Sang-ha is not obvious either.

“It’s true that the content and the story itself is relatively ordinary, but I wish this film can deliver deep emotional lines and also show its unique color,” said Lee Min-ki during last week’s press conference, when asked what was special about this film compared to other Korean action films. “Also there is a love-making scene,” he added.

The film’s love scene was highly anticipated prior to its screening. Nevertheless, the scene did not convey much more than Hwan’s manly desires and something eye-catching.

Regardless of shortfalls in the plotline, the movie did portray the vanity of wealth and power, leaving the audiences feeling as if the characters’ ardent chase left them empty-handed in the end.

“For the Emperor” opened in theaters Wednesday. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)