SOUTH KOREA, 2015
And why not, someone must have thought. The makers of The Shameless describe their movie as a hardboiled romantic thriller. The film has merit but despite the rewarding glimpses of the dark side of urban life it too often feels like hardboiled chocolate. Filmed in black and white it might have been different. The absence of colour would have softened the glamour and added oppression to the alienation. In The Shameless the police detective is handsome. He is super-slim and wears great clothes. His figure complements the long cigarettes he smokes. The actor is more than able but he looks like a film star. Mixing a gangster thriller and intimate romance is valid but it tilts the film towards the wandering plot lines of soap opera. Glossy characters patrolling a grim city give the film a distinct if confused identity. Not sure if it exists but if there is a musical equivalent of The Shameless it would be called operatic grime.
The movie made money. In the first five days after it was released a quarter of a million people made the hike to the cinemas to watch a police detective fall in love with a prostitute who was his senior. The Shameless can be described as Klute for a different generation and an awful lot of South Koreans. There may be more cinematic skill in The Shameless, and the movie is not without ideas. Compared, though, to what happened between Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in Klute the relationship between prostitute Kim Hye-kyung and Detective Jung Jae-gon is undercooked. In Klute the prostitute and detective carry social symbolism and need one another to solve the crime and prevent more murders. The symbolism and the mechanics may be crude rather than subtle but they give the film Klute weight. There are moments in The Shameless when what is happening is too subtle, and there are others that are contrived. Different genres collide.
When sex does occur between the couple, it feels like a one night affair between two strangers rather than an event in a complicated relationship. At least the tentative approach is consistent. The conversation the next morning, loaded with doubt and suspicion, is convincing and impressive. But by this point it belongs in another relationship. The two violent confrontations are over-choreographed nihilism and are a stylistic intrusion in a movie that requires humanist sensitivity. The inter-gang warfare is relevant to the plot but it does not set a fitting context for the human drama that follows. If anything it overcomplicates the narrative, and what is not properly explained hangs over the rest of the film and makes us suspicious about what we are watching. Both the ending and the beginning of the film are weaknesses. The humanity that is revealed is believable, especially when we consider the reaction of Kim Hye-kyung to what has happened to her gangster lover. But it is marred by the final melodrama that follows, melodrama masquerading as ambiguity.
The style of the film, though, should not be dismissed. Darkness is important in The Shameless. ‘Since I’m in the dark I’ve got nothing to confess,’ says someone. The darkness determines what people will do and what happens next. In the dark the characters can step out of the identities they use to survive in the brutal neoliberal world of South Korea. Prostitute Kim Hye-kyung and her gangland lover are tough characters but alone they are different. The aggressive and cold cynicism disappears and they become warm human beings. This escape from the reality of a dog eat dog world sustains their relationship and each other. The romance between Kim Hye-kyung and Detective Jung Jae-gon is different. There the relationship is defined by their occupations. The Detective is working undercover, and the prostitute thinks she is employing a hard-case minder. There is no darkness to help their relationship just tricks of the light. Both betray and tell one another lies.
The city in The Shameless is sordid. In an early scene Detective Jung Jae-gon relaxes in a bath. The walls of the communal or public bathroom are dirty. Like all the locations in the film, it suggests decay and decline. The Shameless is one of many South Korean films that present a jaundiced view of their society. GDP may have increased since IMF constrictions were adopted or imposed but the soul has been taken out of their society argue the filmmakers. The police are the brutal lackeys employed to impose order on the brutalised who themselves are ready to be brutal towards those they can rob or exploit. One of the detectives carries a baseball bat, and the plans they have for the genitals of suspects are best not mentioned. The poor live in overcrowded homes. In one search Detective Jung Jae-gon steps on the various bodies that are sleeping in the one room. From a distance the bodies look like additional waste that the economic system creates. There is rubbish everywhere on the dark streets. The consumerism of yesterday is the decay of today.
The performance of Jeon Do-yeon as the hard as ice-cold nails prostitute is just about perfect. Before she drinks a glass of whisky she chews a couple of ice cubes. Her face is an indifferent mask, and her eyes are a protective shield that reflects away the thoughts and stares of her accusers. She is also believable as a drunk. Kim Nam-gil plays the Detective. Nam-gil can act, and his handsome features are no handicap when he has to brood. His Detective is better than the men with whom he works. It requires a suspension of disbelief, though, to think of him as a policeman passing time eating fast food on his stakeouts although the scene where he eats junk food whilst eavesdropping on the couple that are making love succeeds on several levels. The actor Nam-gil appears to live an exemplary life. He is a responsible actor and is intent on preserving a cultural tradition that the moneymen want to destroy. He supports noble causes. The physical resemblance to Keanu Reeves, though, is unfortunate.
The prostitute has inspired romanticism in both the male and female imagination. Male and female writers have wondered about their remote mystery and what might be happening behind the ice-cold stares. Some writers have suggested that whores make the defiant protest of the outsider. The two best films about prostitutes are Vivre Sa Vie (My Life To Live) and Sommaren Med Monika (Summer With Monika). In Vivre Sa Vie, Jean-Luc Godard filmed the brothel as if it was a hospital where flawed men sought treatment and healing. He also created the image of the prostitute leaning her chin on the shoulder of her client and staring past his head into the distance. The prostitute finds solitude in the place where her client cannot see her face. The image was borrowed for Jane Fonda in Klute. Ingmar Bergmann in Sommaren Med Monika was more puritanical. Monika was neither a victim nor an agent of protest. Monika was a great person to help share the summer but that was her problem. She did not want the summer to end. For Monika that meant avoiding work and settling for the favours from rich old men.
In The Shameless Kim Hye-kyung works as a prostitute because she is in debt. Detective Jung Jae-gon is a policeman because he needs to earn a living. They do what they do because they are obliged. Both are required to be something they are not, to prostitute themselves and betray themselves and each other. Identity is determined by subservience and status, the roles we play and how we prostitute ourselves. The rewards for prostitution are urban isolation and what will be in the rubbish bins of tomorrow.
A man who has always been prepared to settle for the complicated rewards of modern day-to-day survival is Donald Trump. He likes to own golf courses and aeroplanes, especially now other people are paying for them. Although he is able to flatter and seduce women there is no evidence of him being generous when not pursuing seduction. He prefers not to pay taxes. Whether, like Detective Jung Jae-gon, he has been attracted to a prostitute and has made commitments he should not have, only Donald Trump will know. He did, though, sleep with adult film star Stormy Daniels. The feeding of Trump requires a production line, and Daniels, so she says, consented because she felt obliged. She was subservient, and he had the status. The night and encounter should have been forgotten and would have been except someone was determined that Daniels kept quiet about the incident. Daniels claims threats were made about harming her child. Trump has an image to protect and maybe he has a sensitive side. His reputation has had little regard to virtue. Powerful men are concerned about status and rank. It preoccupies the policemen in The Shameless. Trump does not want people to listen to anyone who will undermine his swagger. And the modern media is evidence that more than one piper can play the tune. The Shameless is correct. The tragedy for the President Of The United States is that money only adds to the decay that time demands. His swagger has been confirmed as the bravado of an adolescent.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.