'Bad Guy' a grimy, creepy love story

JIM SLOTEK - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:28 AM ET

PLOT: A Korean gangster who's been admiring a prim college girl from afar railroads her into prostitution and forces her to fall in love with him.

It's not as if moviegoers haven't had to get past an objectionable premise for a payoff before. But in Kim Ki-Duk's Bad Guy, the premise is virtually an elephant in the room.

A Korean-gangster twist on The Collector (the John Fowles novel and subsequent '60s film about an obsessive who takes a girl captive), Bad Guy is the tale of an almost-mute hoodlum who instantly falls in love with an unattainable college girl he sees on a park bench. Unable to win her away from her preppie boyfriend any other way, he pulls a scam and engineers her descent into prostitution -- the better to keep an eye on her. Naturally, she will gradually fall in love with him.

It's the Stockholm Syndrome in action, without even the objective dodge of moral ambivalency. In fact, there's a heavy streak of mysogyny at work in this film, and in the manipulative way it offers the criminal Han-Gi (Cho Je-Hyun) as a sensitive soul. Conversely, Kim presents as catalyst an opening scene where Han-Gi, a perfect stranger, grabs the girl Sun-hwa (Seo Won) and forcibly kisses her. After soldiers intervene, she slaps Han-Gi in the face and spits on him. One can't help but feel the scene is meant to provide a perverse justification for what happens to her.

All this is by way of setup for the movie's set-piece, in which Han-Gi plants himself in a hidden room behind the two-way mirror in Sun-hwa's brothel room and obsesses over her -- selectively beating up her "johns" (including the one who takes her virginity) in a perverse burlesque of chivalry.

In this sense, Bad Guy comes off like a pimps 'n' whores Beauty & The Beast. The more the movie strains to present Han-Gi and Sun-hwa's relationship as a grimy-but-beautiful love story, the more the effort is undermined by its inherent creepiness.

Kim does succeed in creating an evocative picture of Seoul's red-light district, with women in window-stalls like chops in a butcher's window. In this noisy environment, the sweet-faced Sun-hwa becomes an object of hatred for the other prostitutes and fascination for the johns. (Even Han-Gi's two comical henchmen become lovestruck semi-regular customers.)

He also knows how to frame a shot, and is fond of the beach as a motif; during an escape attempt, Sun-hwa finds torn pictures of herself in the sand -- a metaphor for her shattered existence.

Indeed, what Bad Guy shares with Oldboy -- the other Korean film opening today -- is a theme of traumatic events essentially erasing one's identity. Originally intent on escape, Sun-hwa (who apparently doesn't have parents to look for her) eventually finds that when the opportunity arises, she is unable to go back.

For all this, Bad Guy's greatest fault is that it is a listless exercise, that goes nowhere except further into the mire. Oldboy is charged with headlong energy, but the only energy at work in Bad Guy is entropy. And against that decay, a degrading relationship might even seem to some like love.

(This film is rated 18-A)


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