Kim Jee-woon, known for A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil, The Good, The Bad, The Weird and the 2016 production The Age of Shadows, put together a top cast, consisting of Jung Woo-sung (Asura: City of Madness), Gang Dong-won (Violent Prosecutor, Master), Han Hyo-joo (Cold Eyes, Masquerade) and Kim Mu-yeol (Warriors of the Dawn, Forgotten) for his new film Illang: The Wolf Brigade, a live-action feature based on the 1999 Japanese anime Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.
The world, presented in Kim Jee-woon’s film, is different from the one in Jin-Roh. Illang: The Wolf Brigade takes the viewer to the 2029 South Korea, when the governments of the South and the North declare that they will reunify the two countries after seven years of preparation. However, following the decision, the society goes out of control; people are unhappy and often rioting on the streets. With the anti-reunification movement The Sect at large, a special unit of police, The Wolf Brigade, is created to eliminate the problem.
The action of the film revolves mostly around one of the members of the special unit, Im Joong-kyung (Gang Dong-won) and his ‘metamorphosis’ throughout the film. On the day of a planned attack by The Sect, Im is sent on a mission to crush the ‘terrorists’, however, when he faces a teenage member of the organization, Lee Jae-hee (Shin Eun-soo: Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned), he suddenly hesitates to kill her; Jae-hee ends up doing it herself. After the incident, something changes in the man; his psyche is damaged. He meets the victim’s sister Lee Yoon-hee (Han Hyo-joo) and soon after, they both fall into the trap that is love, facing the threat of not only Jang Jin-tae (Jung Woo-sung) – the chief of the training camp for the Wolf Brigade ‘soldiers’ – but also the public security department’s Deputy Head Han Sang-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), who is eager to kill the pair…
Betrayal, sacrifice and extensive violence take the lead in Kim Jee-woon’s newest work. While Jin-Ro’s plot is undoubtedly one of the greatest assets of the animation, the narrative of Illang: The Wolf Brigade lacks depth and is profoundly dull; the further into the story the film goes, the more one starts questioning its purpose. The closest the film gets to having a message is its comparison of men to wolves; people sometimes behave like animals, as predators – they are cruel. They strive to gain power and territory, they often succumb to pure selfishness. The strong survive, while there is no place in this world for the weak – Illang depicts this part satisfactorily. This is where the Red Riding Hood reference is woven into the storyline, but in a slightly crueler form; with a realer edge than the original fairy tale, the story fits well within the narrative. The members of The Wolf Brigade consider themselves to be like wolves – a special unit of those who are stronger, smarter, more ruthless. In their eyes, The Sect is weaker, doomed to be devoured. Just like the wolf devoured the Red Riding Hood in the fairy tale, we encounter a similar situation in the film – of course not literally, but figuratively.
The gray and gloomy scenery is depicted well in the film; the sound design is perfectly executed and the fight scenes are impressively choreographed (with a great precision of movement). While the animation had great character development, Kim Jee-woon’s feature drastically skips that. He didn’t create an opportunity for Jung Woo-sung to showcase his superb acting abilities as Jang Jin-tae; even Gang Dong-won’s portrayal of Im Joong-kyung is substandard as he lacks the lines, even though he gets enough screen time. Kim Mu-yeol’s portrayal of the wicked Hang Sang-woo is impressive; he is the only one that creates any kind of feeling among the film’s characters.
The main problem lays not only in the narrative and the acting, but also in the length of the production. It is over two hours long and between the shootings, the car chase and running in the canals, the director lost any meaning that the story had about the motivations and complex dependencies of other agents, as well as the members of the anti-reunification movement. Sadly, Illang: The Wolf Brigade turned out to be a weak film on many levels and is merely a poor attempt from Kim Jee-woon to make a live-action adaptation. Netflix buying the international distribution rights might have saved the production from becoming a financial disaster. Here’s hoping that the next project by Kim Jee-woon will climb back to the level of I Saw the Devil.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All Photos © Warner Bros. Korea