Actor Cho Jae-hyun plays a cold-blooded prison guard in this compelling psychological drama about the agony of death row.
By Lee Hyo-won
There have been a good number of movies that deal with the agony of being on death row or feature capital punishment as the (un)just consequence of crime.
``The Executioner,'' which premiered at the 14th Pusan (Busan) International Film Festival (PIFF) earlier this month, however, delves into the actual process of the death penalty, which involves more than just a quick snap of the neck and a dead body (hanging is still the method used in South Korea).
In his feature directorial debut, Choi Jin-ho (``Reunion,'' which competed at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival) invites viewers to step into the shoes of prison staff who must carry out the actual deed.
The film poses some big ethical questions but manages to be clear cut in eliciting specific emotional responses from the audience. Nevertheless, ``Executioner'' gets caught in a sort of muddled gray zone; it's too formulaically mainstream for arthouse cinema yet, albeit being replete with comic relief, too dark for lighthearted entertainment.
The talented cast including charismatic screen personality Cho Jae-hyun, however, retains an iron grip on the script, providing for a compelling psychological drama.
According to Amnesty International's standards, Korea is considered to have abolished capital punishment in practice, since executions have been on hold for over a decade since 1997.
The movie imagines what would happen if the death penalty is resumed, and unfortunately, the process involves more than just greasing up the rusty execution equipment.
``Executioner'' chooses a naive young protagonist to lead viewers into the world behind bars (the film is the first to be shot in a real Korean prison). Former pop singer Yoon Kye-sang, who proved his acting skills in ``Moonlight of Seoul,'' is Jae-gyeong, who, after failing the state exam, becomes a prison guard to earn some extra cash.
But little did he know he was stepping into the heart of darkness.
Jae-gyeong's polite ways are of no avail to maintaining order behind bars, and the more experienced Jong-ho (Cho) takes him under his wing.
``There are only two barred places in the world; the zoo and prison,'' explains the stoic, ruthless Jong-ho, who insists on a Spartan treatment of the inmates and strips them of their ``humanity'' by calling them by their designated number rather than name.
In stark contrast to Jong-ho is veteran guard Kim (Park In-hwan), who plays chess with a chummy death row inmate. Though initially torn between the two ways, Jae-gyeong eventually endorses Jong-ho's view that ``beasts don't attack those who are stronger than they,'' and finds great use in his baton.
One day a sensationalized psychopathic serial murder case breaks out and the justice ministry decides to resume capital punishment. The prison guards are all reluctant to carry out the dirty work. Kim, the only guard with execution experience, disappears, unable to relive the horror of the job. And so Jong-ho volunteers while Jae-gyeong and others are chosen in an unlucky draw.
``Executioner'' is essentially a story of spiritual transformation. Through Jae-gyeong's loss of innocence, the film looks violence in the eye and shows how easily it becomes more than a tool of physical control but something that can forever alter the state of a person's mind.
For Jong-ho, execution ― the ultimate form of subjugating the prisoners (or ``trash'' as he calls them) that he loathes so deeply, with good reason ― becomes a form of salvation.
When D-day arrives, it is not just the prisoners that are doomed to die ― those who must secure the noose discover that something dies within their hearts. But the story does not turn uncomfortably noir, suggesting that the human spirit endures even if parts of it cannot be resurrected.
In theaters Nov. 5. 98 minutes. 18 and over. Distributed by Sponge ENT/Silverspoon.