In 2012, the celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To ruled the box office at home and garnered positive reviews and nominations abroad with his hit action thriller Drug War. As the unspoken rule of box office hits in Asia goes, another country in the region – South Korea – announced a remake already in 2014, but things took a while before the lift-off. Finally, in 2017, Lee Hae-young (Like a Virgin, The Silenced) signed on as the director, and the two main roles, which were delivered by Sun Honglei and Louis Koo in the original, were given to Cho Jin-woong (A Hard Day, Signal) and Ryu Jun-yeol (A Taxi Driver, Little Forrest). In May 2018, Believer was released; in mere five days, it surpassed 1 million admissions, becoming the fastest Korean film to do so in 2018.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AHEAD.
Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) is a narcotics detective, who has spent two years chasing an elusive, faceless drug kingpin Mr. Lee. After an explosion at a remote drug lab wipes out most of the higher-ups in Mr. Lee’s organisation, one of the few survivors of the blast, Oh Yeon-ok (Kim Sung-ryung) walks directly into the police headquarters, to Won-ho, and offers to bring the organisation down as a revenge; however, soon after, she also drops dead, right in the interrogation room of the police station. But this is only the beginning – the real turn in the investigation comes from another survivor of the blast: Mr. Lee’s low-level gang member Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) agrees to help Won-ho find Mr. Lee to revenge the death of his mother, who died in the explosion.
Even though Mr. Lee’s organisation took a hit, a major deal with a Chinese-Korean buyer Jin Ha-Rim (the final film role the late Kim Joo-Hyuk took on before his tragic passing last year) is still underway, and it turns out that Rak is in charge of the communications of the deal. He helps Won-ho and his team infiltrate Mr. Lee’s organisation and as they work to catch the mysterious Mr. Lee, the remaining members of the organisation start to surface. Even as it veers further away from the Drug War “Big 7” storyline, Believer spices the action up with an interesting and twisted bunch of characters.
Instead of Johnnie To’s deaf brother duo, we get a death/mute brother/sister duo (Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young) that have been exiled from Lee’s organisation, and who are the geniuses behind the meth production. They are still close to Rak, who can communicate with the two in sign language, making for a few bits of hilarious, curse-word filled dialogue. Then there is the vicious henchman Sun-chang (Hae-Joon Park) whom Won-ho must at some point impersonate; he works close with the insane, semi-religious cult leader Brian (another on-the-dot performance for Cha Seoung-won), the son of a recently deceased industrialist.
The two core characters, Won-ho and Rak, are quite different from their original counterparts; while Won-ho is more obsessed with the task at hand than the original Captain Zhang Lei, it is Rak’s character that got completely redone. Instead of a sneaky gangster, Ryu Jun-yeol successfully captures his character as a closed-off, somewhat boyish, headstrong young guy; he exudes innocence which makes him feel oddly displaced in the gangster world… and yet it is almost too obvious that there is more to his character than it at first seems. The only problem of Believer is that the chemistry between the two main characters is not palpable enough – also, at no point (until the ending itself) do we get to properly feel that there are mind games afoot between the two. This trotting along the undecided, sloppy lines costs the film that extra edge that would have given it full marks.
The much-expected remake, penned by director Lee himself, in combination with the long-time Park Chan-wook co-writer Jeong Seo-kyung (The Handmaiden, Thirst), ultimately only took the basic framework, along with a handful of iconic scenes, from the original; the rest of the production, narrative included, got upgraded, with the technical aspects polished into perfection and with visuals that take the cake. Same goes for the music score, which adds to the mysterious and menacing dimension of the film; no wonder, it was created by Dalparan – the same composer who helped make us shiver in The Wailing. And what makes the audience shiver in the summer heat is also the snow-covered (a drug metaphor right there?) Swedish landscape where the film finds its ending, which is much more emotional and by no means as loud as the original.
Bottom line: Solid narrative, solid action, solid-to-amazing performances, great visuals, spotless technical aspects, amazing score. Watch it.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Yong Film