A Dawkinsian Love Story Wrapped up in a Cracking New Genre(s) Film

in 26th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Cerise Howard

Hard-boiled debt collector Tae Geon-ho is a dapper, taciturn enforcer, in which role the superb Jeong Jae-yeong draws clear inspiration from the stellar examples of Alain Delon and Chow Yun-Fat before him.

The opening scene immediately establishes Tae’s pithy formidability. While we do not yet know his occupation, we quickly glean that he is not a man to be trifled with. Having caught up with a man clearly his quarry, we see the latter douse himself with the full contents of a jerry can and threaten to immolate himself, in front of his family even, rather than to have to face off against Tae.

Writer-director Huh Jong-ho immediately announces his début feature to be one well aware of genre conventions and primes us to expect them both to be addressed and confounded. Tae declares the man’s wasting his time — and proves it. Hollywood action cinema has long conditioned us to expect anything containing or even just splashed with fuel to explode at the merest proximate suggestion of a flame, but Tae and Huh know better. Tae calls the man’s bluff — the silly fellow had covered himself in diesel. Diesel’s not going to ignite, is it? — and it doesn’t. No quarter will be given, the stage is set…

But, as we will learn, one no longer becomes the über-alpha male, does not attain the preternatural near-invulnerability of the action film hero, without commensurate losses of a less superficially apparent nature to balance the ledger.

For Tae’s emotionless, irrepressible ability to do his job is a function of a complete loss of memory surrounding the traumatic death of his son several years earlier. There’s worse: after a surprising and highly inconvenient fainting spell, Tae receives a diagnosis that he has liver cancer and only has a short while longer to live unless he can find a suitable donor, pronto.

(There is even another yin to Tae’s yang — he’s a debt collector who is himself dangerously in debt.)

However, Tae’s son — whom we will learn in flashbacks to have been very hard work bringing up alone, for a very good reason which will be milked for considerable pathos in the film’s latter half — was an organ donor. I am not convinced of the soundness of the science surrounding this but it is asserted that Tae’s best chance of survival is in locating one of his son’s organ recipients and convincing him or her to part with a side of liver.

It so happens that he finds one such person prepared to cooperate. She is, however, none other than Cha Ha-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon), a supremely slippery, chameleonic confidence trickster shortly to be freed from jail but with a score with a Mr. Big (Lee Kyeong-yeong) she’ll insist Tae help her settle before he can hope to get his mitts on her much coveted organ.

Cue a labyrinthine cavalcade of cross and double-cross as Tae goes to great lengths to keep his half of the bargain while Cha repeatedly tries to dodge hers. There are additional complications. Not only is Cha determined at all odds to get her man but she is equally single-mindedly being pursued by Swy (Oh Man-seok), a comically irascible gangster constantly exasperated by his underlings and with whom Tae will have to contend as well. And Cha too will prove to be saddled with a significant weakness, in her desire to lessen her estrangement from her school-aged daughter (K-pop starlet Min), invariably setting up the latter as a pawn in the denouement’s frantic closing manoeuvres.

Along the way there are a number of terrifically staged set-pieces. There’s a very exciting car chase, with a great gag immediately upon its completion, a lovely set-up falsely suggesting the chase might only be taking a breather and will shortly escalate to truly improbable — but surely spectacular! — dimensions, as well as a masterful, lengthy cat-and-mice sequence which unfolds in a busy department store.

It’s not as if those sequences weren’t enough, but in the interests of even greater mayhem, Tae frequently cuts an elegant swathe through hordes of baddies with a nonchalantly unusual weapon of choice: an electric cattle prod!

Still, it has to be said that Countdown does come a little undone towards its very end. While all the narrative’s loose ends are satisfactorily tied up, the film’s mood becomes rather a maudlin one. While the narrative ends admirably unsentimentally, the timbre of the piece nonetheless takes a turn for the overly mawkish.

That said, Countdown is a supremely confident début and augurs very well indeed for Huh Jong-ho. Terrific performances are extracted from a uniformly impressive cast and, for the most part, when Countdown changes gears — and genres — it does so smoothly and with great esprit. It’s also a rare film in which it could be said that its love story plays out on a Dawkinsian level – it’s a tragic love story not between human beings, but rather between certain of their organs – and not even the sexual ones at that!

Between Huh and the likes of Na Hong-jin (whose The Yellow Sea (2010) and, I’m told, The Chaser (2008) similarly combine frenetic and superbly choreographed action with a melancholy grounded in real world woe), Korean genre cinema looks to be in ever better hands, after the fine and innovative examples well set by previous generation heavyweights Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, et al. I, like the majority of my peers on the FIPRESCI jury at this year’s Fribourg International Film Festival, eagerly look forward to Huh’s next offerings with great interest and anticipation.