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The Tooth and the Nail (DVD) (Korea Version)
Ko Su (Actor) | Kim Joo Hyuk (Actor) | Park Sung Woong (Actor) | Moon Sung Keun (Actor)
The Tooth and the Nail (DVD) (Korea Version)
This professional review refers to The Tooth and the Nail (DVD) (Korea Version)

Based on a 1955 novel by American author Bill S. Ballinger, The Tooth and the Nail is a complex murder mystery, here re-envisioned for 1940s Korea following the Japanese colonial period. The film has an equally complex production history, with original director Jung Sik (Epitaph) having left part-way through, being replaced by Kim Whee (The Chosen: Forbidden Cave), who rewrote as well as reshot sections of the narrative. Sadly, the film marks the final performance from actor Kim Joo-hyuk (Confidential Assignment) before his death in October 2017, who headlines along with Ko Su (Lucid Dream).

Set in 1948, the film is framed by a courtroom trial revolving around an apparent murder case, which is hampered by the fact that only the severed thumb of the supposed victim has been found. The story unfolds in flashback, with a nightclub magician called Seok-jin (Ko Su) meeting Ha-yeon (Im Hwa-young, One Day), a down on her luck young woman who arrives in Seoul looking for work. He takes her in and makes her his assistant, and the two soon fall in love. However, their happiness is thrown into disarray when he finds a set of illegal money printing plates in her belongings, setting in motion a series of events which lead to her death. Learning that the plates belonged to her uncle, who was killed by the powerful Nam Do-jin (Kim Joo-hyuk), Seok-jin decides to go undercover as the rich man’s chauffeur while planning his revenge.

The Tooth and the Nail is a real labyrinth of a mystery, with an ambitious narrative structure, and the above synopsis really only scratches the surface, the film having a great many subplots and other characters involved. This kind of thing is never easy to handle, and the film navigates its intricacies through a great deal of exposition, flashbacks, flash-forwards and half-revealed secrets, meaning that it does require a fair amount of both patience and commitment from the viewer. The film and its script don't do too bad a job in this regard, drip feeding information without becoming too manipulative, though it can be confusing in places, wilfully so – even the framing device of the trial is questionable, providing details which conflict with what's being seen in the flashbacks. While this is presumably intentional, there's no doubt that the film's production history has something to do with its inconsistencies, and it does feel a bit like two different stories stitched into one at times, juggling its courtroom scenes, the magician's revenge plot, and the overarching theme of Korea reclaiming its identity and nationhood after the Japanese colonisation. Whilst the film is engaging and has a few solid dramatic beats and twists along the way to its reasonably satisfying conclusion, it's undeniably muddled, with rather an air of self-importance for what's essentially a straightforward pulp crime story.

As might be expected, with both Jung Sik and Kim Whee being directors known for their work in the horror genre, the film has a dark and shadowy feel during its flashbacks, with some great use of lurid lighting, lots of shadows and half-seen figures. This works well, and the film has a suitably sinister atmosphere in places, and an enjoyable pulp-noir feel – it's here perhaps that the gap between the different aspects and acts of the film is most keenly felt, with the courtroom scenes being very basic and dry, and the revenge plot being far more straightforward than the earlier scenes of ambiguous mystery. Thankfully, the film is anchored and given some consistency through its performances, with the relationship between Ko Su and Im Hwa-young being surprisingly touching, and though this gets lost somewhat during all the plot machinations, it does at least give the film an emotional core. Kim Joo-hyuk does well as the villain of the piece, adding a touch of moustache-twirling nastiness to his scenes, and there's inevitably a sense of melancholy knowing that this was his final role.

For all its faults, The Tooth and the Nail remains an interesting and worthwhile film, and one which manages to still offer a decent, if convoluted murder mystery yarn. Though it takes its pulp source material a bit too seriously, Jung Sik and Kim Whee hold things together surprisingly well considering the circumstances behind the camera, and viewers who don’t mind a bit of head-scratching and lopsided plotting should find enough to chew on.

by James Mudge -

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