Film Review: Cold Eyes (Gamshijadeul)

   It cannot be argued that South Korea's national cinema owes a clear debt to the mainstream movie-making styles which have dominated Hollywood genre films for decades. Yet, whilst many American blockbusters are churned out with the only real deviations made to a standard template is which A-listers are shoe-horned into the lead role, Korean auteurs have had great fun twisting tropes and finding ways to add inventiveness to generic formats.

   Take, for example, the police procedural - a favoured, albeit largely creatively static, format in American culture. In Korea, however, movies have been popping up for years in which all that we think we understand about the genre is twisted on it's head; Kim Ji-woon's I Saw The Devil toyed with the idea of investigators hunting criminals and Bong Joon-ho's astonishing Memories of Murder questions the long-standing wisdom that the authority will always win.

   In Cold Eyes, a remake of the Hong Kong film Eye In The Sky, directors Jo Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo continue this development of appropriating a typically American genre and twisting it into the more malleable framework of Korean cinema. From the opening, in which the audience are thrown head-first into the action with little time to acclimatize, it is clear that a complex, visceral and innovative ride is in store.

   Cold Eyes details a crack team of investigators and their attempts to bring down a ruthless criminal mastermind (played in steely fashion by Jung Woo-sung). A lightweight plot in essence, the film gains weight through subtle character development and from stunning action sequences which, unusually in American cinema, twist and shape the tale rather than existing solely for the purpose of spectacle.

   The squad in question is headed up by Chief Detective Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) - a wise and calm leader. Ha Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo) is the latest addition to the militarily precise surveilance unit; her strengths come from her ability to blend in, observe and recall minor details undetected by those being watched. Yet, despite their brilliance, the odds are stacked against them in the presence of cold, emotionless James (Jung) who, whilst being as talented a micro-manager and orchestrator as the police, has a brutal and evil edge which make him an unparalleled danger.

   Cold Eyes is a film about observation and one which requires the audience to really watch it - the narrative never holds up to let the viewers catch their breath and, for the duration of the movie, its essential to keep one's eyes and minds on all the small details which add up to the bigger picture. In this respect, directors Jo and Kim put us in exactly the same situation as Ha Yoon-joo; an increase in empathy and tension is the result. The editing is sublime - cuts are rapid, particular in the spectacular action sequences, but, unlike countless Hollywood blockbusters, momentum never stalls and it is possible to remain lucid.

   Cold Eyes takes a tired genre and, through technical brilliance and precision, feels like one of the most fresh and exuberant films of it's type since Die Hard.
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