Guns & Talks Review
2001 was a great year for South Korea, where the industry was churning out some fairly original and brave genre bending flicks such as Volcano High, My Sassy Girl, Bungee Jumping of Their Own and Sorum, which were dominating the Seoul box office and leaving most U.S. competitors with very little of a look in; quite the opposite when compared to recent years in which the Korean film industry has had to push itself harder than ever. Guns & Talks performed remarkably well when released at the end of the year, with no small thanks going to its then-hot-cast and the visual style of a unique director. On the outset Jang Jin’s first box office success appears to be your typical genre movie, but the set up is little more unusual than expected.
Sang Yun (Shin Hyun-jun) leads a band of elite assassins in the city of Seoul, who also happen to be best friends and live under the same roof. His younger brother Ha-yun (Won Bin) is a communications and hacking expert; Jae Young (Jung Jae-young) is a quiet marksman, while Jung-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) is a quick-tempered and extremely fast runner. Their job is simple: they kill in the manner that their clients ask of them and they do so with the help of Uncle Joo (Yun Ju-sang), who designs weapons and gadgets for them. They believe in the good of their job and take enormous pride in seeing to it that they never fail a mission.
When an informant is killed whilst in police custody Detective Cho (Jung Jin-yeong) suspects that hit-men are behind it, as the M.O. doesn’t match that of the current suspect. His hunch leads him to investigate Sang Yun and company, who he believes are working in line with a man he’s been trying to catch for the past three years – Mun-bae (Son Hyeon-ju). The group’s problems escalate when they each find themselves facing moral dilemmas, with Ha-yun taking a fancy toward a schoolgirl who approaches them to kill a man for her, as well as Jung-woo falling in love with a pregnant woman he’s supposed to bump off. All the while Sang Yun is keeping the identity of his latest client a secret, which sure enough is bound to send his friends into fits.
Guns & Talks is a fresh offering from South Korea in that it doesn’t seem to care about how it resolves itself as long it retains the happy air that it started with. It’s not so much an action flick (as you may be fooled into thinking) but a comedy suspense feature involving a series of neat set pieces which are broken up by lengthy scenes of dialogue and exposition, the latter of which is spouted through Ha-yun’s internal monologues. But above all it’s a highly sardonic piece of work that checks off familiar genre clichés and simply has fun with them. It’s preposterous while being equally exciting; a testament to Jang Jin’s sharp script, wonderful direction and energetic performances from its male leads, which ensures that it quite easily overcomes any suspicious contrivances. The director lets us in on his game early on with more than a few sly winks, but come the mid way point he all out pushes his intent into our faces with some brilliantly staged comic exchanges: Ha-yun’s clichéd narration is often turned into a brilliantly funny gag for example, while the others are given certain plot devices to play with, from Jae Young and his gun worshipping and church visits, to Jung-woo having a conflict of ethics and Sang-yun dealing with a contract from someone he greatly admires; men with hearts and souls, which is otherwise forbidden in their line of work. These are characters who ordinarily seem to be simple archetypes from any number of gangster and heroic bloodshed movies, yet each is given an identifiable personality and the real key in ensuring that we like them and cross our fingers for their safety is that Jang Jin has gathered an ace ensemble through which the group’s chemistry shines.
At the time that Guns & Talks hit theatres in South Korea it already had good fortune on its side. Won Bin was just rising as a new star, having won a best TV actor award for his role in Autumn Story and Shin Ha-kyun was a popular face, having left a mark with JSA. These fellows, along with the quieter Jung Jae-young (who shortly afterward enjoyed a great role in Ryu Seung-wan’s No Blood, No Tears) flesh out their characters nicely. Won Bin’s sentimental narration, perfectly suits his young pansy demeanour, while Ha-kyun gets to enjoy over-exaggerating a lot and question the morality of his job. But the most surprising cast member is Shin Hyun-jun, who plays the leader of the group. This is a guy who often left me conflicted prior to seeing Guns & Talks a few years ago. He’s usually difficult to watch in drama productions and if you note him in films such as The Soul Guardians, The Ginko Bed and Bichunmoo you’ll find that largely he only has one way of doing soppy male leads. That’s why it was such a breath of fresh air to see him branch out a little and take on a role that’s different. The move was a great one and proves that as comedic actor he’s very gifted. He can play his role straight, but his facial expressions and physical presence automatically places him in high regards. A shame then that he never continued on like this, although his output in recent years has been slight anyway. With Jung Jin-yeong on board as a disgruntled detective, Guns & Talks relishes in such a diverse choice of casting.
Jang Jin’s style is certainly distinct and he does indeed appear to be having immense fun in mounting various camera tricks in order to peacefully aid the narrative along. He uses splice editing to enhance comedic foretelling and investigative aspects, in addition to putting CG to good use in some obviously inspired but effective moments. His most curious trait is in drowning the city of Seoul and his four leads in scorched, highly saturated hues, which practically bathe over every scene and lend toward the kind of other worldly atmosphere that his film seems to clearly employ. Steel blue tints creep in whenever the narrative explores its back-story and the palette radiates unlike any kind of gangster/hitman film we’ve likely experienced before. But not only does Jang Jin have a good handle on his thematic colours, so too does he superbly stage his action. Guns & Talks isn’t named as such for no reason; there is indeed a lot of talking, but there’s also some fancy moments in which our “heroes” must put their skills to use. Arguably the stand out scene takes place at an opera house, in which the gang must carry out a hit with police officers standing close by and hundreds of witnesses, with little room for error if they’re to make a successful escape. Jang Jin builds up to this point very well and places a lot of faith onto the viewer; we don’t so much wonder if they’ll make it out, but how they’ll make it out, after which the director then creates a neat little twist which turns the whole idea of a corrupted society on its head, making for a suitably apt finale of moral ambiguity, but ultimately chirpy sentiments.
Guns & Talks is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with anamorphic enhancement. A standards conversion, it unfortunately exhibits ghosting and combing, which can prove to be an annoyance during the more physical chase scenes. But, for the most part, it’s a nice looking transfer which seems to be using the same source as the original Korean release from Metro. Below I’ve included a comparison shot which barely shows any difference (perhaps slightly brighter on the R2 disc). Metro is on top.
The film has a deliberately looking high contrast image, with high saturation across the board and incredible amounts of white blooming as swathes of light cover the Seoul skies and filter into sunny interiors. It’s perfectly suited to the tone of the film and this DVD does well to retain the natural colour scheme, which is often vibrant and gives the location a great sense of life. A small amount of low level noise is evident though on darker scenes, which is mostly evident during the opening hit of the film.
In terms of audio we’re slightly worse off here in the UK. Whereas the Korean release had a 5.1 soundtrack and the Hong Kong version included DTS surround, we have a simple 2.0 offering. Things still sound generally good, being that there’s plenty of clarity in dialogue, while the rear speakers output a little surround noise: various ambient effects such as cars passing by, but mainly they’re used to up the film score, which is noticeably channelled louder than it is through the forward speakers. Other effects, such as explosions are weaker, but given its limitations it’s not too shabby at all.
Optional English subtitles are included and again, aside from a couple of grammatical errors, they come across fine.
The Making Of runs for four and a half minutes and is more a collection of fun outtakes, with Shin Hyun-jun being terrified of using his gun and Shin Ha-kyun crawling through a ventilator shaft. There’s a little behind the scene set up of the opera house car park explosion and finally the climax of the chase between Det. Cho and Sang Yun.
Bon Jovi’s “One Wild Night” music video runs for three and a half minutes and features various clips from the film, in addition the Jovi rocking out. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included on the disc, with a Third Window trailer reel rounding things off.
Guns & Talks is a great little film. Well, not that little at two hours I should say, but not two that are likely to drag it down by any means. It just works on many levels, whether that be for its basic comedy, the occasional raised tension or the highly satirical stance it takes toward conventional films of its type. A wholly likeable cast and a solid chase scenario ensures that Jang Jin’s first box-office success is one of the better genre tales to emerge out of South Korea’s new wave boom.