Director Oh Seung-uk may be best known as the screenwriter behind such varied and well respected efforts as Green Fish (directed by Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong), Christmas in August and H, but way back in 2001 he made a minor splash at Cannes with his existential gangster piece, Kilimanjaro. The Shameless sees him one again turn to the shady world of underground crime though this time what he’s interested in is a romantic melodrama laced with deadly film noir morality.
Recently divorced police detective Jung Jae-gon has been handed what seems like a fairly straightforward murder. They already know who the killer is and the motive behind the crime, all that remains is to track the guy down. Luckily they also know that Park, a gangland thug, has a regular girlfriend, Kim Hye-kyung, who works at a seedy downtown bar - through tailing her they’ll find their man. This is where things get sticky. Said girlfriend is the former lover of the head of another crime syndicate who’d now like to use Park’s current predicament to exact some revenge on the drifter who’s stolen his girl. Roping in a disgraced ex-cop, the gang offer Jae-gon a significant amount of money to cripple Park during his arrest and take him out of the picture for good. Jae-gon is conflicted. The way he sees it, the day you can’t tell which side you’re really on is the day you need to hand back your badge, but Jae-gon’s in need of money, this guy used to be his friend and then there’s the girl...
Right here you have all the essential elements of your classic film noir. Basically good, if imperfect, detective receives an offer he can’t refuse and ultimately accepts it against his better judgement in part because of a femme fatale that he just can’t get out of his mind even if the more rational part of his brain knows this is something that is never going to happen. Before you know it, Jae-gon has researched Park’s history and adopted the persona of a former cellmate before taking an undercover job at Hye-kyung’s bar, attempting to become close to her in the hope that she’ll eventually lead them to Park’s whereabouts. Of course, he starts falling for her too and though she remains doggedly committed to Park, something in her begins to warm to him in return. This is a situation which can never end well and its classic B-movie style inevitability only adds to the eventual pathos of its deliberately downbeat ending.
The film is called The Shameless for a reason - nobody looks good in this shady world of corrupt cops and vicious gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want. The fact that you can barely tell who is on which side is a good indicator of the levels to which this world of chaos has become warped. Even the police are literally “shameless” stooping so far as to indulge in an interrogation technique which is, in fact, a sexual assault. At least the gangsters are abiding by their own rules.
The picture has a slick, stylish aesthetic which is perfectly in keeping with its morally grey, film noir inspired mood. It’s full of existential angst and the ennui of modern, aimless life. As usual for this kind of film, Hye-kyung repeatedly gets the short end of the stick - used and abused by faithless men, so massively in debt it’s almost impossible she’ll be able to extricate herself from the seedy world of hostess bars and petty gangsters before its too late. She’s only one victim of the pervasive sexism that defines this harsh world. Clinging desperately to Park, Hye-kyung’s one and only escape route is to hope one of these feckless men is the one who can take her away from this place.
Needless to say this isn’t one of those films where everyone gets what they want and walks off into the sunset of eternal happiness, but perhaps it isn’t as apocalyptic as the original premise might promise. That is actually something of a problem as the slightly softer ending undercuts the film’s emotional resonance and ultimately leaves one feeling a little less than satisfied. Still, even if The Shameless fails to hit its mark at the very end, Oh has still crafted a stylish and beautifully photographed neo-noir romance that stays true to its classic B-movie roots whilst also embracing the best of the modern crime movie.
The Shameless receives its UK premiere as part of the London Korean Film Festival at Picture House Central on 13th November 2015.