Kim Chang-hoon’s debut feature takes place in the fictional city of Myeongan, South Korea. Seventeen-year-old Yeon-gyu (Hong Xa-bin) receives a warning at school after a violent quarrel with his bullies. His domestic life isn’t very rosy, either. His alcoholic stepfather beats him to the pulp in one of the first scenes, leaving a prominent scar on his face for the rest of the film. His absent mother is complacent at best, failing to provide him with support and affection. He finds some comfort in his stepsister Hayan (Kim Hyoung-seo), one of the very few characters to possess the slightest trace of humanity.
The hapless young man joins the an all-male gang because he desperately needs to earn some cash (the noble reason for his exasperation is revealed in the final third of the story). These thugs are under the purview of a ruthless boss (Kim Jeon-soo) and his son Chi-geon (Song Joong-ki), in a predictably pernicious environment where toxic masculinity prevails. In addition to money, maybe Yeon-gyu is also seeking a sense of belonging outside his household and school. Or maybe not, because he’s a nice guy and the other gang members and plain bad. The psychology of the character is as shoddy as the film plot. What is clear is that he suffers miserably, and that we are intended to sympathise and root for him as he confronts the countless enemies on his path. The characters are so flat that you could literally do a long list and mark each one of them with a “g” or an “e” (for “good” and for “evil”). Yeon-gyu and his stepsister take the consonant. Stepdad, mum and pretty much everyone else take the vowel.
A clumsy subplot about a congressman with links to the gang and seeking re-election does little to lift the story. Instead of working on plot and character development, the director – who also penned the film script – opts to fetishise violence. The extremely graphic scenes serve no purpose other than shock audiences, and induce vomit for the most squeamish people (myself included). There is no humour, no substance. On the other hand, there is no shortage of blood, particularly in the subpar Tarantino-esque torture scenes. The action includes punching, stabbing, pulling out fingernails or maybe even chopping them off with a paper trimmer. Just choose your weapon: a knife, a truncheon, pliers, a screwdriver, a bag of nails or your bare hands. Not many handguns at sight though, as Japan boasts strict firearm and sword possession laws.
At more than two hours (132 minutes), this Korean misery fest feels interminably long. A monotonous one-note piano score also contributes towards the sense of languor. At times, it feels like the film title refers to the sentiment that audiences experience as the mind-numbing narrative fails to take off and say anything significant at all. This is the a banal and unimaginative good-guy-gone-bad story you’ve seen a million times before. The biggest takeaways are that young people in desperate need of money can do silly things, and that violence is the most universal currency. Barely inspiring and sobering.
Hopeless is in the Festival Favourites section of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.