I have quite the hard-on for South Korean cinema. Ever since I first saw Oldboy as a teen, I’ve been mesmerised by the trope subversion and laterally thought out plot developments incumbent in a great deal of this particular nation’s offerings, and how satisfying an antidote it is to the pedestrian, kid-gloves payoffs that splatter too many a Hollywood blockbuster. Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Na Hon-jin, the late, great Kim Ki-duk and many others are always due for commendation in how boldly and singularly they turn the romance, horror, action and drama genres on their heads and inside out.
Night in Paradise, the latest picture from Park Hoon-jung, follows some of his previous ventures such as I Saw The Devil and Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life in its melding of visual beauty and humanistic intelligence with batshit insane violence. Well-acted, thoughtful and a consummate nail-biter, its reflections on loyalty, redemption and death manage to be strong enough to transcend tendencies that are out-of-left-field nutty.
Tae-Gu (Uhm Tae-goo) is a resolute and talented enforcer for an organised crime syndicate led by Yang (Park Ho-san). Tae-Gu’s fearlessness and talent for violence have been noticed by Chairman Doh (Greg Chun), the boss of the significantly more powerful Bukseong gang, but his attempts to recruit Tae-Gu are foiled by our hero’s steadfast loyalty to Yang. Outside of mob life, Tae-Gu dotes on his sister and little niece, steeling himself for the day that he will need to become the latter’s carer when his terminally ill sibling passes away. This expected tragedy is supplanted by a more immediate and grisly one, Tae-Gu’s sister and niece being killed in a messy car accident.
Convinced that this was actually a hit orchestrated by Chairman Doh in retaliation for snubbing his offer of employment, Tae-Gu stages a brutal revenge massacre against Doh and several other Bukseong soldiers with Yang’s blessing. Knowing he is now a marked man, Tae-Gu allows Yang to arrange a week of lying low on the island of Jeju before fleeing to Vladivostok in Russia. Tae-Gu is received on the island by Kuto, a legendary gangster who worked as a hitman for Yang before absconding to Jeju and independently dealing arms, and Kuto’s niece Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been). Slightly younger than Tae-Gu, Jae-yeon is also terminally ill, and her impending death has imbued her with an admirable indifference to anybody’s thoughts of her and her free expression. She bears a strong grudge against gangsters with good reason, making her initial acquaintance with Tae-Gu an awkward and hostile one.
Eventually, the passive-aggressive frostiness gives way to a deeper understanding and connection as Tae-Gu begins to strongly empathise with Jae-yeon’s heedless determination to get the most out of her final days, her antagonism slowly decreasing as she realises that despite the young man’s profession, he has more depth and redeeming features than she gave him credit for. This burgeoning companionship is placed under threat by the inadvertent catastrophe that Yang has engineered on the mainland, his plot to wipe out all competition backfiring and leaving him at the mercy of Bukseong’s terrifying second-in-command, Director Ma (Cha Seung-won). Tae-Gu’s bond with Jae-yeon and the safety of many others is now in the looming shadow of the Seoul underworld’s very worst, and our hero is going to have to fight tooth and nail to protect those he cares about and leave the world a better place than he found it.
Although it doesn’t break any new ground, Night in Paradise is very successful when it comes to focal characters that the viewer can care about. Uhm and Jeon exhibit believable chemistry that is equal parts plaintive and sweet, made all the more convincing by the emotionally poetic nuances of their combative first steps upon introduction. Jeon sympathetically throws caution to the wind, her pushy hubris offering a contemplative air that invites us to think about how we might act if we knew our time was drawing to a close sooner than we hoped. This is balanced very nicely by Uhm’s quiet toughness. Although Tae-Gu could never be considered a saint, he has palpably human dimensions and old-fashioned sensibilities that set him many leagues above your average heartless thug who doesn’t care what he has to do to keep the filthy lucre flowing. Their fleeting relationship is one of naturalistic profundity, suffusing small and quiet moments with a cerebral poignancy that never becomes saccharine. The film’s villainous quotient also delivers the goods, particularly Cha as Ma, the insouciantly mannered and icy crime lord and harbinger of bloody chaos for Tae-Gu and friends. The gangland intrigue is executed with well-paced action sequences and unremitting tension, making the picture a curiously effective mix of tearjerking adult drama and menacing wiseguy thriller.
Kim Young-ho’s cinematography captures the majesty of Jeju Island with a neon twilight hue, framing the location as an idyllic utopia of redemption and introspection. The film unequivocally looks and sounds excellent, and the strength of the performances and tackling of themes ultimately surmount several elements that would derail many other pictures outright. Although Jeon is shown to have grit and a talent for target practice, it doesn’t smoothly account for the interludes where she inexplicably transforms into the female equivalent of John Wick. There’s an undeniably satisfying underpinning of karmic righteousness at play, but it is nevertheless mad and eyebrow-raising. It’s almost unfair, given that Night in Paradise is a textbook entry in the Heroic Bloodshed genre, but a lot of the third-act violence stretches credulity to new lengths. Protagonist survival is axiomatic when wanting to avoid a film that is far too short, but there are ways to make that happen that aren’t so utterly fantastical and insane. It’s thrilling and impressive in and of itself, but a few ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, come on!’ exclamations are easily yielded by such popcorn madness in a film where the strength actually lies in ruminatively adult displays of interpersonal relationships. In the final analysis, though, the two leads ensure an experience that is deeply moving and likely to linger in the mind for a good while afterwards, thankfully unthwarted by the often-silly excessiveness of the gangster showdowns. It’s arguably formulaic, but if you’re a fan of full-on crime cinema with skilful composition, this one is undoubtedly worth opening up your Netflix for.