As the credits rolled, there was a feeling of deja vu.
This was not a Ryu Seung-wan film, yet it was oddly reminiscent of his signature style: likable characters written to be compatible with each actor, unforced humor, clever lines and suspenseful action. Then I discovered director Lee Sang-geun used to work as an assistant director for Ryu.
Lee is not a Ryu-wannabe, of course. In his first feature effort, Lee managed to create a film that is both fun and suspenseful, with protagonists that are relatable and likable.
The film starts with Yong-nam (Jo Jung-suk), a young loser struggling in the job market with no real marketable skills. At his mother’s 70th birthday party, he runs into Ui-ju (Im Yoon-ah), a girl from his college rock-climbing club on whom he had a crush, working at the banquet hall where the party is going on.
“Exit” (CJ Entertainment)
A terrorist attack in a nearby building results in poisonous gas filling the streets. As the gas slowly ascends, Yong-nam must lead the family to safety.
I had thought the film would be a train wreck. A rookie director, a male lead who recently made some dubious choices of roles and a former K-pop star as the female lead. To cap it off, very few quality disaster films have been made in South Korea.
Luckily, Lee knew exactly what would work in his film and what wouldn’t, and he focused on the former.
First, this is not really a disaster film, but more of an action/comedy film. And the comedy really works, although the language and cultural barriers will limit its appeal to an international audience.
“Exit” (CJ Entertainment)
Jo plays a role that seems to have been written specifically for him. While very talented, Jo is not an actor with much range. But when he is in his comfort zone -- his breakout role in “Architecture 101,” or “The Face Reader,” for example -- he absolutely shines. And this is one of those times.
In past acting roles Im, while not god-awful, did not offer anything special on screen either. Here, however, she brings life and charm to her character, and the chemistry with Jo is great.
This is why I thought the director was quite clever about pacing. Im is not terrible, but she does have limits, particularly in her first lead role in a film.
So Lee relies on Jo and veteran actors like Go Doo-shim and Park In-hwan in supporting roles to slowly build up the drama. Ui-ju enters the picture only after the audience feels comfortable with the characters, and Jo’s superb reactions in their scenes makes their relationship feel authentic.
The film also does not overuse -- for the most part -- comic relief, or more importantly, “sinpa” moments, overly emotional and dramatic moments in Korean films and dramas.
Also impressive was how the film kept its focus, rather than overwhelming us with too many subplots or too many characters. Lee knew the story was always going to be about the leading pair, and just focused on them.
The action was also suspenseful and fun, especially the way it exploited the cityscape to scatter challenges and funny moments along the way.
There were a few clunky or cheesy moments -- particularly toward the climax -- some throwaway characters and lazy lines, and a few plot holes. And the film does repeat itself a bit in the way it builds up tension.
But for every flaw, the flick had many more enjoyable elements, and it showed potential to become “the” summer blockbuster of the year.
In many ways, it looked a lot like director Ryu’s “Veteran,” minus the social satire and good villain -- as a disaster film, this one essentially has no villains. The film has the leading man playing the role he is perfect for, a crisp storyline that’s easy to understand, funny lines, likable characters and good action.
“Exit” opens in local theaters July 31.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)