A Korean Dirty Harry
Running Time: 138 minutes
UK Certificate: 18
Country: Korea (South)
Kang Chul-joong (Sul Kyung-gu) is a Korean 'Dirty Harry' – a jaded, rough-edged ex-boxer police detective who prefers beating up suspects to bringing them in, and who is gradually drifting into corruption. Cho Gyu-hwan (Lee Sung-jae), on the other hand, is Korea's answer to 'American Psycho' – a well-groomed fund manager, hard-nosed to the point of being sociopathic, who engages in ruthless, conscience-free acts of murder whenever anyone gets on his nerves. In 'Public Enemy', Kang Woo-Suk's film about the crossed paths and parallel lives of these two men, divided by class but united by their uncontrollable rage, the question is which one is the greater public enemy.
One rainy night on a stakeout, Kang runs into a hooded man in an isolated lane, who unhesitatingly slashes him beneath the eye, leaving behind the knife. A week later, after the bodies of an elderly couple with multiple stabwounds from the same knife are found, Kang becomes convinced that Cho, the couple's son, is responsible both for the murders and for the scar on his own cheek. What then follows is a game of cat-and-mouse, or more correctly bull-and-shark, between the two men, with Kang breaking every rule in his intimidation of Cho, and Cho exploiting his status, and murdering again, in order to get Kang off his back.
Although 'Public Enemy' features a hooded serial killer and a fair share of graphic slashing, it is distinguished from the generic slasher movie because its killer's identity is known to the viewer from the outset. Consequently, far from being a suspense thriller, the film becomes a complex morality tale. For while we are never in any doubt what to think of the psychotic Cho, the motives for Kang's behaviour are far more ambiguous. It is not clear, for example, whether Kang decides to victimise Cho because he really thinks him guilty (he has very little evidence for this) or simply because he resents his arrogance and envies his lifestyle; nor is it clear whether the scarred Kang pursues Cho in the public interest, or because of an entirely personal vendetta. Over the course of the film, Kang does undergo a kind of moral conversion, replacing his violent selfishness with civic awareness, but the film's over-the-top final image of Kang angrily wielding a chainsaw again calls into question his status as a 'protector of the people'.
The film's occasional flashes of unflinching violence are offset by comedy, e.g. the scene in which Cho murders his own parents is intercut with images of Kang furtively voiding his bowels in a lane – and then slipping into his own shit. These rapid shifts from explicit brutality to low humour give the film an uneasy edge which only add to its moral confusion – and the actor Sul Kyung-gu in particular proves highly adept at switching from sadist to clown and back again.
'Public Enemy' is a film that seems a bludgeoning mess in the cinema, but whose parts coalesce into something more interesting upon subsequent reflection. It is, however, lumbered by being inexcusably epic in length.
It's Got: corrupt police, comic criminals, a psychokiller, moral depth
It Needs: some serious editing
Alternatives:Dirty Harry, Heat
Bring your shit into the public, and you make enemies – play with knives, and you get cut – anger a bull, and you get trampled