I'm betraying my own cultural ignorance here but when I think of Korean cinema, my mind immediately jumps to thrillers, usually of the grim and gritty variety (like Oldboy, I Saw the Devil or The Chaser). My horizons need broadening and Going by the Book is just the place to start. This is a comedy that takes a typically tense situation and infuses it wish such creativity and wit that traditional genre conventions are quickly forgotten.
The film drops us in to the humdrum existence of Jung Do-man (Jung Jae-young). His primary goal in life is to be dutiful. He's an obedient son who does what he can to please his parents. He's a committed cop who completes every task according to the letter of the law. He seems withdrawn, even a bit sad. This is likely due to his recent demotion after being too diligent in chasing down a corruption scandal involving the Governor. In any case, he now fills his days with the tedium of traffic duty. This is where he has his first run in with the new police chief, Lee Seung-woo (Son Byung-ho) in an encounter so perfectly pitched that I don't dare spoil it here. Let's just say he leaves an impression. This comes back to haunt him in a big way fairly quickly.
You see, for such a small town, Sam-po sure has seen a lot of bank robberies lately. The unprepared and somewhat incompetent police force has been taking a beating in the media and Police Chief Lee would like to fix that. He has ambitions which don't include being stuck in Sam-po indefinitely. To mend public perception, he decides upon a training exercise. A cop will pose as a bank robber and try to hold up a bank before having his plans thwarted by other cops present on the scene. The media will be there to shower the police force with praise on their preparedness and public faith will be restored. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Lee could ask Do-man to be the faux bank robber. That would certainly throw a wrench in the works. When a guy as focused as Do-man devotes all his energy to being the best damn robber he can be, the already challenged police force will be tested beyond their limits.
Looking back on what I've said so far, I realize that I've even made Going by the Book sound like a thriller. While the bank robbery backdrop supports that perception, the staged aspect of the whole scenario successfully challenges our expectations every step of the way. Hostages aren't taken by force, they are cajoled into sitting quietly with signs around their necks that say they've been tied up. The serious looking SWAT team outside is armed with paintballs rather than bullets. By removing the typical sources of danger from the setup, we are left with a framework that is bursting with comic potential. The gags range from smart satire to silly visual gags but are unified by a love for the characters and cohesive style.
You would never guess this is director Hee-chan Ra's solo debut. He works wonders with Jin Jang's clever screenplay. He lets small character moments breathe while quickening the pace elsewhere to the point that I sometimes forgot this was all just a training exercise. Building up that sort of tension before defusing it with laughs is a mighty challenge but we see that happen here again and again. A big part of this success is due to the engaging work by the entire cast. At times the film may seem like a battle of wills between Jung Jae-young and Son Byung-ho but there is a large group of players providing capable support on both sides of that equation. By the time, the climax rolls around with a synchronized umbrella march/dance featuring all the hostages, the moment exudes warmth rather than feeling gratuitously quirky.
Going by the Book is a bit of a strange beast. It is a comedy that thrives on creatively twisting the familiar rather than harping on the obvious. It gracefully finds humor in its unusual setup without going for any cheap laughs. In that sense, the film defies its own title by tossing out the rulebook on its path to success.
The image is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. For the most part, the image is clear and free of defects. A few shots seem soft and there is a bit of edge enhancement to be found but black levels are decent with a fair amount of shadow detail. Flesh tones also look accurate.
The audio is presented in Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround with optional English subtitles. This mix doesn't really suffer from any obvious issues. Dialogue comes through nice and clear while the occasional action scene gets the low-end support it deserves. This is a perfectly acceptable presentation for the material at hand.
This release is packed to the gills with extras. There are several featurettes that effectively add up to a fairly length Making Of piece. Think Right (11:03) includes interviews with the cast and crew as they discuss the complexity of making a sincere comedy from a slightly far-fetched script. We also get some insight into the casting process. Next up, A Simulated Bank Robbery: The Making of Going by the Book (40:52) is the lengthiest featurette. It features additional interviews interspersed with B-Roll footage. We get peeks at various rehearsals and gain an understanding of the playful rivalry between different production teams. The Way he goes by the Book (13:00) follows the same format with discussion of the lead character and some dissection of the plot. Cheerful Hostages and Distressing Police (13:57) shifts focus to the rest of the ensemble cast. I must admit that while the behind the scenes footage is plentiful, none of the coverage feels terribly insightful. It's all pretty fluffy and polite.
Other extras include a pair of Deleted Scenes with optional commentary by the director. Neither adds much to the film so I can see why they were left out. A Poster Shoot Video (6:36) takes us into the storyboarding process of making the film's poster while Production Announcement (9:53) features crowd footage at a public showing and meet & greet with the cast. Animated Promotional Short (1:27) is a silly little cartoon that manages to be educational and exceedingly weird at the same time. A Music Video (3:18) intercuts a live performance with footage from the film. The Original South Korean Trailer (2:35) and Cast & Crew Bios / Liner Notes close things out.
If you've been looking for something a bit unusual, Going by the Book may just hit the spot for you. It's a comedy that walks like a thriller but certainly doesn't talk like one. Conventions are skewed and clichés tossed out the window by an adventurous young director working with an ensemble cast who appear to be game for anything. Highly Recommended.