Public Enemy

Originally released in 2002 this South Korean police thriller is like Columbo – less a whodunit, we know the identity of the killer, but how will the detective catch him.

Rogue cop, Kang (Sol Kyung-gu) is in a tough spot supporting two daughters and a mother whilst under investigation from Internal Affairs. Kang’s career is in a downward spiral of demotion, he supplements his income by stealing drugs and extorting money from criminals. His squad is little better and the urge to be public protectors is minimal until a brutal murderer shakes Kang’s perception of crime. Said murderer is Cho (Lee Seong-jae) a ruthless and successful investment fund manager and seemingly happy family man. Under his controlled, happy exterior exists a callous disregard for life that flares up whenever somebody defies him. His first victims are his own parents after a disagreement over money. After the murder, Cho and Kang meet in a dark alley, the two engage in a scuffle and Cho slashes Kang’s face. It is only after the bodies of Cho’s parents are discovered does Kang realise the importance of the encounter.

Kang and Cho meet in the rain in Public EnemyThe comparison to Columbo extends from the plot to a sense of class war within the film: working class cop versus affluent man. Unlike Columbo the protagonists are extreme: the good guy is an impulsive and violent character who abuses his position to steal from gangsters and sell drugs to drug dealers. The antagonist is rich, arrogant and controlled like many a Columbo bad guy but he is seething with a disturbing hatred for any person who defies him and carries out brutal murders.

At over two hours it sounds like a long watch but the film whips along due to the humour, plot, characters and action. This makes the battles between the two central characters exciting.

Sol Kyung-gu as Kang in South Korean film Public Enemy

How Kang is a detective boggles the mind. He mishandles evidence and he’s so strange nobody can believe that he is a detective. Needless to say none of his investigation would stand up in court but it does not matter because once he meets somebody with worse morals than him he regains his sense of duty and begins a satisfying character arc and we will him to catch Cho who is a genuinely frightening character.

Lee Seong-jae as Cho in South Korean film Public EnemyTaking place during a heat-wave, the film is beautifully filmed with a real sense of place and life lived during day and night whilst the dialogue and acting brings the characters to life.

As we follow the battle between the two, we are shown the worlds of crime and justice peopled by a cast of characters who are just a few facial expressions and physical gestures from comedy which is the strength of this film because it’s not afraid to go for the laughs adding levity to the atmosphere and making it much more entertaining watch.

Like recent South Korean films Memories of Murder and The Chaser, Public Enemy has an outsider cop fighting twisted antagonists breaking moral codes whilst showing the machinations of South Korean justice. Unlike those films, you can smile at the end because Kang’s transformation hints that everybody can be redeemed if they help themselves.

Release date: 2002 (South Korea)

Running time: 138 mins.

Director: Kang Woo-suk,

Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Lee Seong-jae,

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