The Drug King, 2018.
Directed and written by Min-ho Woo.
Starring Kang-ho Song, Jung-suk Jo, and Doona Bae.
A Korean drug smuggler is initiated into the drug trade and experiences a spectacular rise and fall set against the backdrop of Korea in 1970s.
Set in 1970s Korea, Kang-ho Song plays real-life drug smuggler Lee Doo-sam. Doo-Sam begins as a small-time dealer of “crank” but soon begins to get enmeshed in a confusing and dangerous world of the Japanese yakuza, Korean internal security (the KCIA), and, eventually, political intrigue. Viewers familiar with Scorsese’s work will probably be able to guess the dilemmas of drugs, violence, and rock music that follow Doo-Sam with minor nods to Goodfellas and Casino.
Overall, director Woo does not add much to the canon of the rise-and-fall drama genre. But there are small touches that cumulatively make The Drug King (the actual name bestowed on Doo-Sam) a minor classic. While the story is fairly familiar Woo makes some notable choices that separate him from an army of imitators.
Like Henry Hill, the story is based on a real person. But Hill’s story was about a gang that comes up and falls down together. Doo-Sam does have a gang or rather his family becomes his gang and the film is really more of a family melodrama. Yet many twists and unexpected occurrences ensue that make the film move along briskly for a haunting if predictable conclusion. Moreover, whereas Scorsese and Tarantino try to encompass an entire society and family clan, the story really is about Doo-Sam and his individual rise and fall. It also adds an international dimension with Doo-Sam jetting back and forth between Korea and Japan and becoming a major player in the drug trade seemingly overnight.
Two major and favorable style choices enhance the viewing of the film greatly. For one, the soundtrack is mercifully innovative. While the usual gems of the 1970s are scattered throughout, Woo does occasionally add sonic flourishes (admittedly derivative of Kubrick) that make the film memorable. Secondly, though the camera work is conservative and plain Woo favors small movements that reveal big things for the attentive viewer with precision and effectiveness.
Probably the only drawback is an American or Western viewer might be overly confused by the references to Korean politics in the 1970s. Woo has explicit and fascinating material at the beginning how the “crank” trade is essentially a Japanese import due to the brutal occupation that occurred. Still even a patient viewer might become overwhelmed by all this amazing detail. A second viewing is highly recommended and one will catch many interesting subtexts Woo layers the film throughout with the exception of a minor (and once more) derivative sub-plot that is highly moralistic and unnecessary.
The one major flaw is the ending with the film shamelessly stealing from De Palma and Scarface as Doo-Sam spirals into madness as he becomes rich and paranoid as a drug seller-abuser. The build-up is a steady ratcheting of tension and familial crisis set to explode in Shakespearean bloodiness marred only by a deflationary and rather obvious ending.
Those viewers who have seen a few rise-and-fall narratives will probably not get much out of Woo’s melodrama. But if you are just beginning to immerse yourself in rise-and-fall drug-laced melodramas, The Drug King is a powerful meshing of old styles and Woo’s Korean-style narrative skill Netflix has made available to people only somewhat familiar with Korean filmmaking. Woo has succeeded with a constrained yet solid style in a creating a devastating portrait that will surely be imitated in the future though be placed as a minor not major addition to the post-Scorsese stable of 1970s mythic drug movies about corruption and inner torment.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★