After being sexually harassed in a public park, pretty twenty-one year old college student Seon-hwa heads on out with her boyfriend, not paying the incident much mind. Little does she know that her assailant has been following her and soon she's set up for a fall and convinced that she owes a man $15,000.00 when he busts her for supposedly pick pocketing her. Left with no choice, or so it seems, she is forced into working in a brothel for $50 a lay where she'll have to toil for quite some time to pay off her debt.
The man who earlier harassed her, Hang-gi, is the muscle at the brothel and it's his job to watch the girls from behind a one way mirror as they work, to ensure that none of the clients get too out of hand with them. Hang-gi spends the majority of his time peering in on Seon-hwa, his hang up for her becoming more and more obvious. As Seon-hwa slowly but surely becomes more accepting of her new life and her new line of work, her relationship with Hang-gi starts to develop into something completely different than captive and captor, and their lives become strangely tangled as they begin a sort of co-dependency that will morph into something very strange and very odd by the time the end credits roll onto the screen.
Less concerned with telling a story than with examining the strange bond that develops between Hang-gi and Seon-hwa, Bad Guy is pretty grim fare. Seon-hwa is subjected to numerous incidents of sexual assault, she's forced to live in a single solitary room inside the brothel and is allowed outside only as far as the window that faces the street so that she can attract customers and only at night under supervision. In short, she's held prisoner and forced to turn tricks or suffer the consequences. Hang-gi and his two cohorts are not nice people at all and it's here that the film becomes perplexing because as hard as it is to admit it while you're watching the film, Kim ki-duk almost makes us feel sorry for him.
By portraying Hang-gi as a man of (almost) no words, he gives him a child like quality that somehow manages to lessen the impact of what he does to Seon-hwa. The director plays with our expectations in the film and really makes you think things over as the movie plays out. Hang-gi sees Seon-hwa less as a human being and more as a piece of property at times but he's not willing to allow one of his co-workers, who claims to truly be in love with the poor girl, to have anything to do with her. When that same co-worker helps Seon-hwa to escape out a window by removing the bars from the wall for her, Hang-gi gives him quite the beating and heads out to retrieve what he feels is his, rather than let her go (and in turn, the man who did let her go should, in theory, really love her as he did 'set her free' so to speak). The film seems to be telling us that Seon-hwa is the only thing good in Hang-gi's life and that there is the reason he is so possessive and obsessive over her. A valid interpretation, and an interesting curveball that the film throws at you, considering that Hang-gi is surrounded by filth day in and day out as his job, and subsequently his lifestyle, requires this of him.
Performances are great all around. Jae-hyeon Jo is excellent as Hang-gi, and considering that he really only has two or three lines during the entire film, is quite amazing as the male lead and is able to portray more with his eyes and his facial expressions than many actors are able to with pages and pages of dialogue. This is in no small part to the film's clever direction and emotive soundtrack but the bulk of the credit for the effectiveness of his character does deserve to go to the actor. Likewise, Won Seo, who initially portrays her character as a bit of a brat, really transforms her role into something quite remarkable. We witness her typical college girl attitude morph into her initial resistance towards her dilemma and ultimately her surrender to circumstance and her acceptance of her fate. In typical Kim ki-duk fashion and in the tradition of some of his other films such as The Isle and Samaritan Girl, this is not exactly a feel good movie of the year, but it is very, very well done. It does contain some strong scenes of violence and even stronger scenes of sexual violence and I'm sure that some of the themes and especially the ending are bound to rub some people the wrong way, but it never feels like expliotation, which is quite a feat in and of itself.
Bad Guy receives a rather mediocre 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. While the aspect ratio is fine, the colors are a little murky looking and the image is a bit soft because of it. Skin tones look ok but there are a few times where the reds are too high and as such they bleed just a little bit. Everything is at least watchable, but the movie could have looked better. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum but there is some mild compression artifacting evident in the blacks in a couple of scenes. This could have been worse as there's still a decent amount of detail present in the picture, but overall I expected this film to look better.
You've got your choice of checking out the movie in either a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix or a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix with optional subtitles available in English. Both mixes are pretty solid and don't really have any notable problems. A few of the directional effects on the 5.1 track sounded just slightly off but if I hadn't been listening for it I doubt very much that I would have noticed those instances as they're quite minor. My only real issue with the audio portion relates to the subtitles in that during the scene where the central characters are on the beach and she says something to him and there are no subtitles. This is a crucial moment in the film, and for the subs to kick out at this point is really, really annoying. Other than that, the subs are fine, but that one omission is very noticeable and it is worth mentioning no matter how anal it might sound to get irked over one line.
Extras include a video montage set to the film's theme music that is kind of cool, a making of featurette that runs for about six minutes and is basically just some raw behind the scenes footage set to music with no dialogue or interview clips, and an eight minute interview with director Kim Ki-Duk. This interview is pretty interesting and very much worth watching if you're at all interested in his films, as he discusses his inspiration for making this film and filmmaking in general as well as some of the rather unusual developments that his films tend to take as they play out.
Rounding out the extra features is the North American trailer for the film. The animated menus that were designed for this DVD release are quite cool and they do a good job of maintaining the somber mood of the story without really giving anything away.
While I was disappointed in the transfer and that one glaring subtitle omission really pissed me off, Bad Guy is a great film and at least this DVD from Life Size isn't barebones. Kim ki-duk continues to make interesting and challenging films and it's probably only a matter of time before his work becomes more celebrated in North America – this film is one of many reasons why. The DVD comes recommended (and the film on it's own, highly recommended).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.