Following a gruesome discovery, two veteran police officers with very different approaches to their work are tasked with solving a case which has shaken the Korean city of Incheon. Jeong (Sung-min Lee) isn’t averse to strongarm tactics and gaining intel from his network of shady informants to get things done, while Han (Jae-myung Yoo) is more by the book. What initially appears to be a straightforward case takes many twists and turns, involving the detectives in ways neither of them had suspected…
At a time when US remakes of foreign language films are being discussed on a regular basis, it’s interesting to note that The Beast is based on the 2004 Olivier Marchal thriller 36 Quai des Orfèvres which starred Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. This Korean variant keeps the central idea of two rival cops pursuing a promotion by solving a high-profile case but swaps out its inspiration’s spate of armed robberies for a murder investigation with a side order of drug dealing and organised crime.
There’s still a fresh out of jail snitch who does something bad. There’s still a bar owner for whom the forces of law and order exact some measure of off the books retribution for a previous crime against them. Even if you’ve seen the French version, this update manages to pile on the sense of impending doom to an even greater extent, putting its characters through the emotional wringer with an almost masochistic glee.
And yet, taking so much of its source material from elsewhere leaves The Beast too often in uncharacteristically formulaic territory for a Korean movie. The running time is a leisurely 131 minutes so there’s room enough for the piece to breathe and to give the main players plenty of opportunities to clash but, as slickly made as this is, there’s little here to distinguish it from the glut of dark crime dramas out there.
Occasionally, it does threaten to break the shackles of its familiar structure, specifically during a marvellously tense stakeout sequence which explodes into a chaotic, brutal brawl across various floors of an apartment block but there aren’t enough of these shots of adrenaline administered to the plot to provide enough of a boost to the general sluggishness and relentlessly downbeat nature of the piece.
For such a grim tale, it’s something of a surprise that gore is used sparingly and the real chills come from the discovery of where the most heinous acts may have been committed, glimpsing the tools involved and hearing snippets of the victim’s terror on the soundtrack. The M.O. here is to focus on the wider effects of the crimes and the perma-reluctant co-operation between the police units so for all of the autopsy sequences and body parts it’s a whole lot less bloodthirsty than it could have been.
Performance-wise, there’s good work across the board here. The two leads are always watchable and there’s the inclusion of a suspect who’s both far from superhuman and yet incredibly dangerous at the same time. This is a nice change from the physically intimidating genius who can usually be guaranteed to show up as the good guys’ nemesis in this kind of the thriller.
Even the term “good guys” is relative here. Without going into too much detail, our nominal heroes may have the authority and the badges but some of their actions don’t just border on criminal. The lines between legal and illegal don’t just blur, they’re ignored when the situation warrants it. Even so, the film never loses sight of the ultimate goal of bringing a vicious killer to justice, even if he’s being pursued by almost equally vicious killers.
Overall, The Beast works as both its own, er, beast and as an interesting companion piece to 36 Quai des Orfèvres. It may not be the most memorable of thrillers but it’s a solid watch, enlivened by the odd burst of helter-skelter action and some finely-crafted moments of suspense. The muted tones of its cinematography perfectly match the gloomy atmosphere which pervades every single minute of its run time and It’s slightly disappointing that the technical excellence on display isn’t wedded to a more unconventional plot.
I enjoyed it, but I was hoping to enjoy it a whole lot more.
Signature Entertainment presents The Beast on Digital HD from 6th April