How much are you willing to pay to become king? Is the price of having wealth, power, or respect worth the pain or death it brings? Hot Blooded: Once Upon A TIme In Korea succeeds in tackling these themes, as well as the perpetual cycle of violence, with a poetic focus that left me intrigued with what it was trying to say, even though I’m not sure if it was clear enough.
Written and directed by the famous Korean author, Cheon Myeong-kwan, Hot Blooded tells the story of Hee-Su (played by Woo Jung), a veteran gangster on the verge of retiring from his life of crime until an unexpected betrayal drags him back into the life he left behind. Now caught in the middle of a mob war in the port city of Kuam, Hee-Su must struggle to choose between loyalty or the freedom to walk away.
Hot Blooded is pumped full of the lifeblood that makes a crime crime thriller so intoxicating. From its visceral fight scenes, grimy color palette, and melancholic atmosphere, Hot Blooded paints within its genre but with a flair for a more self-aware tragedy. This careful approach creates a struggle between depicting characters stuck in a system that demands blood and a plot that feels to be juggling a bit too much in its runtime. It was seeing the day to day rapport of the different factions of the crime families and their entrenched roots in the community and its people sold me on coming along this journey. The town of Kuam becomes a character itself. From the long steady shots of cold and empty docks at the port to the warm and radiating beach side, Kuam is the pensive canvas soaking up the blood trail Hee-Su leaves behind as he ventures deeper and deeper into the abyss of vengeance.
The expressive and patient pacing approach could have easily lost me if it wasn’t for Woo Jung’s performance of Hee-Su anchoring the film. He utilizes Hee-Su’s determination and regret to craft something incredibly personal and relatable that kept me in his corner even when his choices were hard to stomach. Lee Hong-nae’s portrayal of Ah-mi was another incredible highlight embodying the joy and heart of the film that kept it from falling too deep into its more moody and disjointed parts for too long.
Unfortunately, that disjointedness caused the most friction with my viewing and the struggle with my review. The film was filled with several characters that felt like they had bigger roles that were not fulfilled in the film’s runtime. The lack of clearer relationships between certain characters deflated the emotional weight of certain choices and actions throughout the film that I wish were further explored. However, even now, I wonder if that is part of the point? The film is in many ways about masculinity and how certain aspects of society thrive on the removal of one’s emotions to obtain a higher status. How could the film ever explore the lives of these characters thoroughly when the lives they lead require them to never be truly attached to one another.
Regardless of these faults, however, Hot Blooded:Once Upon a time in Korea is an intriguing film that I enjoyed and will continue to ponder upon for days to come.