Political intrigue and gruesome murder make strange bedfellows in V.I.P., the busy new serial killer thriller from South Korea. Director Park Hoon-Jung Director Hoon-jung aims to examine the boundaries of privilege through rank psychopathy while commenting on the current geopolitical climate, but winds up with a busy, depressing mess that drags as much as it thrills. Placing a monster at the center of political gamesmanship is actually an excellent technique, but the exhausting investigation mostly serves to make everyone look rotten in the end.
The titular Important Person is Kim Kwang-Il (Lee Jong-Suk), his status inherited from a high ranking DPRK official. After committing some heinous acts against young women and their extended families in North Korea, Kim is passed along to first Hong Kong and then Seoul. His North Korean pursuer, Ri Dae-bum (Park Hee-soon), is reassigned to hard labor duty at a fertilizer plant. Once in South Korea, Kim and his merry band of degenerates quickly get up to old tricks and attract the attention of Park Jae-hyuk (Jang Dong-gun), a National Intelligence Service man trying to quietly bury the case, and Chae Yi-do (Kim Myung-min), a maverick police officer looking to blow it wide open.
Lee Jong-Suk turns in a unsettling performance as a child-man so armored by his privilege that raping and murdering scores of people ranks as a vaguely eccentric parlor game. Given the lack of strong women characters (not to mention gay characters), its disappointing that Kim Kwang-Il’s psychosis is couched in androgynous beauty and effeminate manner, but matters of taste and cultural sensitivity aside, the character is one of the most successful aspects of V.I.P. Kim Myung-min also commits admirably to a trite characterization, adding surprising depth to chain-smoking, rule-breaking, uber-badass Chae Yi-do. A delightful Peter Stormare also shows up for a small role as an excessively Texan and crooked CIA agent. Roles are uniformly well-cast, but characters rarely get a chance to satisfy a cohesive arc.
V.I.P. spends far too much time weaving its tangled web, and too little time ripping it apart. The story is much more straightforward than it seems, and the convoluted political wheeling and dealing appears to be a choice rather than a necessity. And while the extensive machinations of the political juggernaut eventually do build a kind of tension, it’s due to frustrating tedium rather than well-balanced suspense. The film doesn’t wind up to be cleverly unwound — it simply gets unwieldy, then shifts gears. That said, the last 30 minutes of the film are actually riveting, and Kim Kwang-Il’s eventual comeuppance is enormously satisfying, but one is left wishing the story had pared down to its central conflict more quickly, or at least more cleverly.
V.I.P. was likely conceived before the impeachment of Korean President Park Geun-hye, and its critical eye is directed outward, yet a story of gruff sort-of-do-gooders running up against massive corruption feels especially timely. However, this story could really use a humanistic core to explore that banal evil of bureaucracy. The ostensible hero begins his story by actively and violently breaking from police procedure, refusing him even the possibility of a tragic arc, and though the NIS man has all the makings of a redemptive tale, his character is under-cooked, given limited screen time and limited backbone. Without proper human development, V.I.P. simply becomes a pessimistic catalog of evil and corruption with some gangbusters blood-letting at the end.