With a history as rich and vast as the peninsula of Korea’s, it is no surprise that films based on the lives of revered national figures are made in South Korea in plenty. It is, however, baffling that no film that focused specifically on the very eventful life of activist, freedom fighter and the last Premier of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, Kim Koo, had been made so far. He is finally given his just dues in Lee Won-tae’s biopic “Man of Will”, starring Cho Jin-woong and Song Seung-heon, which focuses on his early days when he was still called Kim Chang-soo.
The film starts with the fight that would change the course of Kim Chang-soo’s life, where he ends up killing a Japanese man. As it turns out, Kim Chang-soo killed the man because he suspects him of having assassinated the beloved Empress Myeongseong, something he considers not a crime but a national service. Thrown into prison without trial, where he meets various inmates including fellow death-row inmate Go Jin-sa and the brutish Ma Sang-gu, Kim Chang-sooo refuses to eat or drink until his trial. This prompts the authorities to take him to trial urgently where the Judge, while sympathetic to his motive, refuses to be lenient on him for killing a foreign national in cold blood and hands him the death penalty.
Thrown back in prison to await his execution, Kim Chang-soo embarks on a mission to help his fellow inmates, who have been in prison for years still awaiting trial, write petitions, get their day in court and be exonerated and eventually teaching those inside how to read and write. This thwarts the plans of prison warden Kong Hyung-sik, who wants to use the illiterate prisoners in the Japanese’s plan to build the first Korean railway between Incheon and Seoul, which would enable the Japanese to have a stronger control over the land.
Lee Won-tae, in his debut feature, attempts to tell a noble story of an ordinary life, doing extraordinary things and while he succeeds at providing an important and entertaining history lesson about a commoner who went on to be a national hero, he fails to avoid the cliches that come with the genre. Once back in prison, the films plays out like “The Shawshank Redemption” or even the Hwang Jung-min starring “A Violent Prosecutor” wherein Kim Chang-soo helps both prisoners and guards alike with his expertise, earning praise, friends and favours in return. The film’s biggest weakness is in its character developments, with a lot of the protagonists, including the pivotal prison warden Kong Hyung-sik, coming across as one-dimensional. Even Kim Chang-soo’s friendship with Go Jin-sa, an encounter which would shape the way Kim looked at his fellow prisoners and in turn shaping the rest of his life, feels highly superficial and underdeveloped. Not even Hong Jae-sik’s lush cinematography or Kim Hyeong-seok’s appealing, if slightly generic for the genre, music fails to hide the script’s shortcomings.
2017 was a good year for Cho Jin-woong. An actor who’s usually seen in ensemble pieces, he had not one but two starring roles last year, including the serial killer thriller “Bluebeard”. His Kim Chang-soo is righteous, strong-willed and immensely charismatic, portraying the fun as well as the emotional depths with equal subtlety. While Song Seung-heon does his best with what he has been given, the script limits him to being a suave, temperamental and violent prison warden. It would have been interesting to see more of the internal conflict that he goes through as a Korean man under the thumb of the Japanese, something which films like “The Last Princess” or “The Age of Shadows” did well recently. Jung Jin-yung is an actor capable of excellent performances, as evident in “The King and the Clown”, so it is unfathomable how he is only getting small, forgettable roles like Go Jin-sa here, or his blink-and-you-miss roles in the recent “The Swindlers” and “A Taxi Driver”. One of Korea’s busiest supporting actors, Jung Man-sik is effective if underused as Ma Sang-gu, the hard prisoner with a heart of gold. A cameo from Cho Jin-woon’s co-star from the hit “A Hard Day” Lee Sun-kyun comes as a pleasant surprise.
At just under an hour and fifty minutes, “Man of Will” is by no means a long film and could have possibly done with some more time spent exploring the characters and their relationships. While it is certainly engrossing and entertaining, it ultimately leaves one wanting and slightly unfulfilled.