The narcotics industry, or what existed of it, in South Korea has for the most part never been explored in cinema up until recently. 2018, however, changed that with two films on the subject out in a year. While “Believer” was a remake of the Johnnie To film “Drug War”, director Woo Min-ho’s latest film “The Drug King” attempted to tell the true tale of the 1970s drug trade through Busan into Japan. It was highly anticipated not only for being Woo Min-ho’s follow-up to the excellent 2015 thriller “Inside Men”, but also for starring South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho, who was last seen in the hit Gwangju Uprising drama “A Taxi Driver” as well as Bae Doona, one of the leading South Korean actresses. So does the film live up to the hype and the towering names it comes with? Let’s break it down.
After a brief introduction to methaphetamine, we are introduced to goldsmith Lee Do-sam, who, in 1972, is an ambitious family man that gets pulled into the smuggled goods business through a UN ambassador who helps smuggle gold into Busan. Using the ambassador’s contacts and his own enterprising abilities, Lee Do-sam sets up a successful smuggling ring that smuggles pretty much everything, eventually bringing him to the drugs industry. With the crackdown on the drug in Japan, where there is a huge demand for it but heavy shortage, Lee Do-sam sees an opportunity to import raw material from Taiwan, cook the drug in Korea and smuggle it to Japan. Making important connections, friendships and animosities, only to trample on them all to fulfil his ambitions, Lee Do-sam rises to be the biggest drug kingpin South Korea has seen, making his product “Made in Korea” the most popular drug in Asia. This, of course, catches the attention of the authorities and freshly transferred Prosecutor Kim In-goo takes it upon himself to bring Lee Do-sam and his empire down.
Certain sub-genre films are tricky to handle. Drug kingpin or cartel films, much like underdog sports dramas for example, can only go in certain directions before they start feeling familiar, but it is the execution, the characterisations and the acting which set each film apart. The execution here, coupled with Go Nak-seon’s cinematography and Jo Yeong-wook’s era-accurate music, is for the most part enjoyable. The character of Lee Do-sam is richly etched out. Song Kang-ho has made a career out of playing bumbling fools (“The Foul King”, “The Host”, “The Good, The Bad, The Weird”, even “Memories of Murder” to an extent all feature him playing such characters) and his Lee Do-sam begins his smuggling life with just as much tomfoolery, moving on to much bigger and better things. The character’s highs and lows are interesting, but not entirely unfamiliar. His journey from a family man to drug kingpin who can deal deftly with the yakuza but fail miserably in dealing with his wife is a treat to watch in Song Kang-ho’s able hands.
However, the film’s biggest problem is that, in stark contrast to Lee Do-sam’s character, almost every other character populating the film (of which there are a lot) is ridiculously underdeveloped. Characters come and go from his life as quickly as his rise to fame, letting the audience not familiarise and empathise with any satisfactorily. His cousin Lee Do-hwan, who’s one of the main pillars of his business starting up, his partner Jin-pil who’s responsible for his business’s early success, his contact in the Prosecutor’s office Sang-hoon, local mobster Jo Seong-kang are all interesting characters that never really amount to much in terms of storytelling or screentime, giving seasoned actors Lee Hee-joon, Jo Woo-jin and Lee Sung-min not much to work with. Even the other two lead characters of Kim In-goo and Kim Jeong-ah, played by top-billed actors Jo Jung-suk and Bae Doona respectively, don’t appear until much later into the film and fail to make an impact. The script also fails to avoid several cliches that films of this sub-genre come with.
Song Kang-ho has never given a bad performance, but he has been in some films that do not hold up to the high standard the audience expect from his films. “The Drug King” sadly falls in the latter category. While it scores high in the acting department, it doesn’t hold up as well in the writing department as Woo Min-ho’s “Inside Men” did, for example. This is well and truly a Song Kang-ho vehicle and the writing reiterates as much.