`Open City’: Freshness Turns Stale
Loaded with action and marked by sexual tension, ``Open City'' is yet another urban crime story set in the gritty streets of Seoul. But what sets it apart is that the cat and mouse game involves a network of professional ― and really scary ― pickpockets.
Lee Sang-ki makes a big directorial debut with a high-profile cast and a novel subject matter. He zooms into the world of ``corporate'' pick pocketing, but the story soon turns sour with some poorly crafted ``Basic Instinct'' elements and cliched family tragedies that are inherent to Korean dramas.
Son Ye-jin (``A Moment to Remember,'' 2004) trades in her innocent image for a dangerous persona, going all out with the hint of sex appeal she showed as a perky playgirl in ``The Art of Seduction'' (2005). She's ravishing, but like her character's cheesy name Baek Jang-mi (homonym for ``white rose'' in Korean), the new role seems to be an awkward fit.
Jang-mi is the boss of an organized gang of pickpockets that's affiliated with the Japanese Yakuza. The group has been pulling tricks internationally, and Jang-mi plans to expand her turf by conquering Seoul's hot spots like Dongdaemun and Myeong-dong.
But it isn't easy ― Korean and Japanese authorities are tracking her down while competing gangs are out to get her. When a nasty rival tries to corner her, young and able detective Jo Dae-yeong (Kim Myung-min) comes to the rescue.
Throughout the movie, our so-called femme fatale seems more like a typical damsel in distress, except that she has a taste for low-cut dresses and red stilettos. Dae-yeong eventually figures out she's a prime suspect, but falls prey to her lies and sexual maneuvers.
Meanwhile, to manifest her grand plans, Jang-mi turns to Gang Man-ok (Kim Hae-sook), a veteran pickpocket who just got out of prison and is determined to stay clean. To complicate things, Man-ok happens to be Dae-yeong's mother. The poor detective must crack down on the pick-pocketing underworld and deal with his traumatic childhood memories while having to stop himself from stealing glances at Jang-mi's cleavage.
``Open City'' reveals the intricate workings of the street-smart theft. First, the group chooses a target in a crowded marketplace or bus. While ``the antenna'' watches their back, another member creates a distraction so ``the machine'' can quickly slit open a purse or coat pocket of the oblivious victim.
The movie warns that anyone can be a victim, as these thieves, well dressed in fine suits, look like typical businesspeople. Also, if you do happen to catch them in the act, don't try to apprehend them as they will slash your arm and run.
Apart from the realistic portrayal of the crime, the relentless violence among the gangs seems unnecessary. Some of the police action sequences are well-crafted ― Kim Myung-min, a late bloomer who recently rose to stardom, shows his tough side as he beats six armed mobsters with a stick. But the emotional spectrum involving the mother-son conflict feels old and contrived like a second rate TV soap.
The biggest blow yet to the film is its focus on style over substance. While Son is smoldering with her array of off-the-runway outfits, she's no Sharon Stone. It could have delved more into her cover as a tattooist ― the skin-bearing art had inspired a host of erotic films in Japan ― but it's just another stylish touch to the otherwise cliched drama.
Some of the supporting characters also stop short of being stylized caricatures, like the heroine's mysterious and beautiful sidekick (Shim Ji-ho), who mimics the classic bodyguard character immortalized by Lee Jung-jae in the all-time hit Korean TV soap ``Sandglass'' (1995).
It is worth seeing if you're a big fan of the lead actors. If not, it seems like a big-budget, star-studded campaign to raise awareness about pickpockets ― you'll think twice about the safety of your wallet in public places.