A jealous gang boss asks his top-most, trusty right-hand man - Sun Woo - to watch over a young new girlfriend while he’s away. If she’s seeing another man, Sun Woo must kill her. Watch her he does; playing away she is; yet kill her he doesn’t. But letting her off with a warning brings a spiral of retribution down on Sun Woo when the boss finds out. Now former enemies and trusted friends are out for Sun Woo’s blood. But he wasn’t the top man for nothing and, pained by betrayal, he visits his own vengeance.
Action there is, and lots of it. But what’s really important is the tick-tock-tick of Sun Woo’s own thoughts and emotions – emphasized time after time in wonderfully judged touches. In an uncomfortable, long-held take of Sun Woo walking away from the girl, the sound of his steps seem like reverberations of his own emotions. Seeing the girl, the camera flits with Sun Woo’s eyes – her wrist, ear, smile. Images that return, haunting and happy. Icily isolated, even amid his gang, Sun Woo doesn’t sleep: he clicks his light on and off, a rhythm of hypnotic loneliness. And Kim Jee Woon’s film is a rhapsody of light and lighting. The girl’s merely a catalyst, inspiring Sun Woo outward to a better life.
But as the film descends into bitter violence, the sweetness in Lee Byung Woon’s portrayal of the tragic hero is a welcome leaven. As immediately iconic as A Better Tomorrow’s Chow Yun Fat, Byung Woon gives a consummate performance. Chiselled yet slight, as both actor and taekwondo artist, he ably proves that less is more. Lurid Korean thrillers such as Old Boy can’t hold a candle to such sophistication. The image of a lone Sun Woo quietly eating chocolate mousse before killing some troublesome triads sums up the film’s surprisingly subtle aesthetics. Sensual, cerebral and satisfying.