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[Herald Review] ‘Start-up,’ a loveable disappointment that fails to take off

[Honestly, Choi Jeong-yeol’s “Start-up” is a film that I would’ve loved to like. The film had such loveable characters and felt so likeable, yet both the narrative and comedy kept falling short.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it is a poor-man’s version of “Exit,” a 2019 action comedy which blended just a hint of drama with three tablespoons of suspense, two cups of laughter, awesome characters and a whole bunch of creative settings to conjure up a surprise hit.

This is an odd analogy because I initially viewed “Exit” as a poor-man’s version of Ryu Seung-wan’s “Veteran,” a crime drama with a bit of humor, likeable characters, suspense and action.

While neither is good as “Veteran,” both “Exit” and “Start-up” were produced by Ryu and share some of his trademark features. But while the former managed to have its own unique characteristics and charm, I felt the latter was a much too watered-down version of what it could have been. 

“Start-up” (NEW)
“Start-up” (NEW)

The story kicks off when teenage delinquent Taek-il (Park Jung-min) runs away from his overbearing mother (Yum Jung-ah), and ends up working at a Chinese restaurant. There, he has a less than friendly encounter with the cook Geo-seok (Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee), a bulky man whose past is shrouded in mystery.

Meanwhile, Taek-il interacts with other troubled teens: Gyeong-ju (Choi Seong-eun), a former boxer with whom he has constant quarrels with; and his best friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), who takes a job working for a loan shark to support his grandmother.

The film initially felt like unoriginal, unfunny film, but it does a good job of creating likeable characters.

At center of it all is Ma, who once again takes on a role of a brute with a funny/unexpectedly cute side. At this point, he is like Liam Neeson: he basically plays the same character in every single film, but when it works, it really works. Making a character that looks like a cross-dressing Hulk Hogan likeable is no mean feat, so give credit where it’s due.

It seems like Park was born to play the role of a troubled soul. What I love about the actor is his eyes, the way it portrays defiance and vulnerability. In this picture, he is like a child in need who is too stuborn to cry out loud, which makes his character more relatable and story arc easier to follow. The same goes for Jung’s Sang-pil, although not quite as deep or memorable.

The film is very well-cast. Choi Seong-eun is a little known rookie with potential, from what I can tell from her performance in this picture, and Yum is reliable as ever. The chemistry between the characters is great, especially between Park and Ma.

Outside of the characters, the film doesn’t really offer much. The story branches out in different directions, but the way they come together in the end is really clunky. I felt like the film would have served better as a TV series than a film because the director’s storytelling skills kept faltering.

The film has ups and downs. It starts out weak but develops the characters to be likeable. Yet the story is never sufficiently developed enough to be appealing, yielding mixed feelings: I like these people and am interested in their story, but their story is not very interesting.

Another thing is that a lot of the jokes fall flat. This is one of those comedy films that starts out by being funny and ends up being a tear-jerker -- something Korean cinema churns out by the dozen -- but it is just not that funny or touching. Not that it matters a lot, but the story is very predictable too.

Overall, I felt like the film could’ve delivered much more than it did. It had the makings of comedy gold, but kept sputtering out.

“Start-up” opens in local theaters on Dec. 18.

By Yoon Min-sik