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Master (Blu-ray) (2-Disc) (Scanavo Case Full Slip Limited Edition) (Photobook + Photo Card Set) (B Type) (Korea Version)
Kim Woo Bin (Actor) | Lee Byung Hun (Actor) | Kang Dong Won (Actor) | Jin Kyung (Actor)
Master (Blu-ray) (2-Disc) (Scanavo Case Full Slip Limited Edition) (Photobook + Photo Card Set) (B Type) (Korea Version)
Anti-corruption films depicting a marked distrust of the wealthy and a suspicion of the societal status quo have been proving more and more popular in Korea of late, perhaps unsurprisingly given some of the political scandals which have rocked the country. Director Cho Ui-seok is the latest to take a stab at such themes with his latest offering Master, following up on his accomplished 2013 surveillance Hong Kong thriller remake Cold Eyes. Revolving around an investigation of the fraudulent activities of a high-profile investment company, the film boasts an impressive cast of top stars, including Lee Byung‑hun (Inside Men) in the lead villain role, Kang Dong-won (A Violent Prosecutor), Kim Woo-bin (Twenty), Uhm Ji-won (Missing) and Oh Dal-su (Detective K). At least partly because of this, the film struck it big at the Korean box office, pulling in more than 7 million tickets during its theatrical run.

Lee Byung‑hun plays Jin, the president of One Network, a financial company which has proved hugely successful thanks to its targeting of everyday people as investors, promising to help them fulfil their dreams. Needless to say, behind his benevolent façade Jin is an exceptionally crooked conman, as anti-corruption officer Kim Jae-myung (Kang Dong-won) intends to prove, having already spent considerable effort trying to nail him. The film opens with Kim and his right-hand deputy Shin (Uhm Ji-won) forcibly recruiting Jin's tech expert and all-round fixer Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin) to spy on his boss and gather the evidence they desperately need in the form of a ledger which handily contains the names of all his shady contacts. Although Park reluctantly agrees, things don't go according to plan, and six months later when Jin resurfaces in the Philippines, he and Kim join forces again for another shot at taking the ambitious crook down.

Master is a film with a familiar story and themes, and doesn't stray far from the path trodden by the likes of Inside Men and other corruption and conspiracy dramas, dealing with the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, the upper crust living above the law and there being little difference between criminals and the incompetent authorities. While the film doesn't have as much in the way of satirical bite or anger as some of its peers, it's still very much driven by the desire to protect everyday people from the leeching of the great and good, which Cho Ui-seok presents with a fun kind of sly cynicism rather than tub-thumping. With lots going on, the focus is primarily on scheming, shifting allegiances and improbable twists, and the result is a more commercial and popcorn-friendly social conscience flick, though one which retains just enough substance to engage the intellect.

Strangely, it's a film of two very distinct halves, and without wishing to give anything away, after the failed initial operation everything essentially starts again, the characters and their plans all going back to square one. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite pay off, and the film spends a lot of time finding its feet again, only to basically go through the same series of beats as Kim and Park slowly close back in on Jin. While this approach need not be too much of a problem, Cho stuffs the film full of filler material, with lots of pointless scenes of characters discussing their plans, staring at computer screens or shouting angrily about nothing much, something which makes it feel every minute of its overlong, nearly two and a half hour running time. To be fair, the Filipino scenery helps add something a little different, and Cho has the sense to work in a good amount of action throughout, and though bloated, the film isn't offensively boring. Things do pick up considerably towards the end, the last act featuring some great shoot outs and chases, though by then many viewers sadly may have already tuned out, the film having lost much of its momentum.

Unsurprisingly, the saving grace here is star power, which the film certainly has in spades, the acting being good across the board and the cast giving the material a welcome lift. Lee Byung‑hun naturally dominates, and despite not taking centre stage is easily the biggest and most entertaining presence in the film, making Jin interesting and enjoyable to watch, getting more and more desperate as his schemes inevitably go astray thanks to his boundless greed and ambition. Jin is certainly more fun than the rather dull Kim, who despite the best efforts of Kang Dong-won is a stoic and one-note figure. Thankfully, the film pairs him with the far livelier Kim Woo-bin, who turns in a great, likeable performance that balances comedy with tough moral choices, and who gives the film most of its funny moments. Uhm Ji-won and Oh Dal-su provide impressive support, and there’s a sense of quality even in the film’s minor supporting roles.

This helps to make Master entertaining, and though flawed it's a solid piece of commercial Korean cinema, and fans of anti-establishment thrillers should find plenty to enjoy. What it lacks in substance it makes up for through Lee Byung‑hun, and if not as sharp as his earlier Cold Eyes, it’s a perfectly acceptable, if overstretched, offering from Cho Ui-seok.

by James Mudge -

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