If there is one thing that can be said with any degree of certainty about writer-director Chris Chan Lee's Undoing it is that the film has an undeniable quality of craftsmanship that is enough to make the film worthy of checking out. On the flipside, that same level of craftsmanship is not always consistent, making the film a mix of finely realized moments and missed opportunities. The result is a film that goes from engaging to annoying as easily as it does poetic to plodding.
Sung Kang stars as Samuel, a low level gangster who returns to Los Angeles after a year-long absence. Samuel's hasty departure from his stomping ground came on the heels of the death of his best friend Joon (Leonardo Nam), who ends up on the wrong side of some bullets after he foolishly gets involved with drug dealers. Samuel's return to LA is an attempt to make the wrong things right. This includes settling up with a crooked cop involved in Joon's death and getting back with his girlfriend, Vera (Kelly Hu), who has since moved on to a new relationship. From here, things get a bit convoluted, as Samuel embarks on a felonious scheme that will somehow take care of the matters he finds most pressing. Soon, he is being hunted by a philosophical hitman (Russell Wong), and entering into a shaky criminal venture with Vera's new man (Jose Zuniga).
An experimental mix of minimalism and neo noir sensibilities, Undoing shows all the signs of a filmmaker heavily influenced by decades of cinema. Chris Chan Lee seems to have drawn inspirations from a wide variety of films and filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville. But despite the influences that inform Undoing, the film itself never manages to become its own cinematic entity, and never fully engages the audience the way it should. Instead of caring about the characters or the story, you're just as likely to wonder what influenced individual scenes.
As a filmmaker, Lee's strength is his direction and his sense of visual style--Undoing looks good more often than not. But as a writer, Lee needs to sharpen his skills. The film's characters are largely uninteresting, evoking nothing more than indifference. Sure, Sung Kang gives a solid performance, as does veteran character actor Tom Bower and the rest of the cast; but at the same time we never really care about any of the characters. It seems as if Lee wants the audience to fill in the blanks when it comes to character relationships and motivation, but he has left a few too many blanks to fill in. It is difficult to see any sort of connection between Samuel and Vera, as well as Vera and her new boyfriend, which makes it difficult to care about who she ends up with in the final reel. Nor do we get much sense of the relationship between Samuel and Joon, even though they were as close as brothers
Undoing is not a bad film, but at the same time it lacks enough consistency to be truly good. Instead it is a promising film that is never fully realized to its fullest potential. It is interesting enough to keep your attention, but not engaging enough to make a lasting impression.