A troubled teenager turns to the mob in Kim Chang-hoon’s brutal South Korean drama


Source: Cannes International Film Festival


Dir/scr: Kim Chang-hoon. South Korea. 2023. 133mins

This dark, violent master-and-disciple Korean noir is nothing if not stylish. First-time writer-director Kim Chang Hoon rolls out more than a few mob drama clichés, right down to an outwardly tough but deep-down vulnerable damsel in distress. But there’s a clarity of vision and a control of mood that sets Hopeless above the run of hard-boiled genre titles. A suffocating slipknot drama, it embeds violence and extortion in a destructive ecosystem, showing that every favour is loaded, every gift poisoned, every debt unpayable. Brutality never cleanses in Kim’s impressive debut; it simply engenders more brutality.

A suffocating slipknot drama, it embeds violence and extortion in a destructive ecosystem

It’s a sombre ride with a few lacerating, ear-crunching scenes of graphic violence, one to be filed at the classy end of the ‘Korean Extreme’ spectrum alongside, say, Old Boy or Night in Paradise. Despite a few longueurs, Hopeless’ tough mix of crime action and bleak morality play should appeal to resilient arthouse audiences, not just in the genre zone, who are up for a bracing descent into hell (the film sold to multiple territories agead of its Un Certain Regard premiere.

Upcoming Korean acting talent Hong Xa-bin takes on the role of Yeon-gyu, a 17-year-old who lives at home with his cowed and silent mother, abusive alcoholic stepfather and intense step-sister, Hayan, played by pop singer and rapper Kim Hyoung-seo (a.k.a. BIBI). Yeon-gyu’s playground attack on a schoolmate who has been hassling Hayan kicks off the plot’s downward spiral of violence, debt and retribution – dished out with weapons which range from a rock to pliers, office stationery guillotines and a baseball bat.

Quitting both school and his food delivery job, Yeon-gyu turns to mid-level mobster Chi-geon (Song Joong-ki), who had paid off the conflicted teenager’s reparatory debt to the boy he attacked. Reluctantly, the reserved, soft-spoken criminal takes the youngster under his wing, teaching him the rudiments of one of the mob’s sources of income – stealing motorbikes. But the clan is also deeply embedded in local politics, using bribery, blackmail and other forms of persuasion to push their chosen candidate into power in the upcoming elections.

Yeon-gyu’s apprenticeship to Chi-geon is the hub around which the entire story spins. We’re reminded of wuxia martial arts conventions in the yin and yang balance between the impulsive, heavy-set youngster and his slim, self-controlled master, but there’s a homo-erotic strain too, one which culminates in a sacrificial finale. That may sound glamorous. But Kim is constantly undermining the sheen of the standard mobster movie in a world in which man hands out misery to man, one where a peddler’s little son is beaten up for no good reason, where every mobster transgression carries a penalty, starting with the easy one of having your fingernails ripped out. Why? “Because these are the things we just have to do”, Chi-geon tells Yeon-gyu. “It sucks, right?”.

Set in the fictional ‘Myeongan City’, Hopeless exudes grime and dissolution. Dishes pile up in Yeon-gyu’s cramped apartment, the sodium-lit streets seem permanently greasy, shops and business are locked in a debt spiral. Scored by Kang Ne Ne’s moody piano-led soundtrack, the film’s worldview is summed up in the mobster HQ, an auto workshop where motorbikes are dismantled, repainted, discarded – a place filled with scrap, spare parts and tools that when not needed to puncture a fuel tank or turn a bolt, can be used to kill a man.

Production companies: Plus M Entertainment, Sanai Pictures

International sales: Megabox Plus M, Eugene Kim, kim.yujin3@megabox.co.kr

Producers: Han Jae-duk

Production design: Lee Chae-young, Park Il-hyun

Editing: Kim Sang-bum

Cinematography: Lee Jae-woo

Music: Kang Ne-ne

Main cast: Hong Xa-bin, Song Joong-ki, Kim Hyoung-seo, Jeong Jae-kwang