BAD GUY reps the most emotionally satisfying pic to date by Korean iconoclast Kim Ki-duk. It's a melancholy love story, shot through with pain and violence, between a low-life gangster and a young woman he forces into prostitution. A skewed beauty-and-the-beast yarn played out with all of Kim's dark fatalism, it's certainly Kim's tightest and most coherent movie, with a small kernel of characters and a simple concept that's rigorously played out to the end - and beyond. With its careful camerawork and rich color palette of gaudy neon and trashy costumes, pic evokes a world run by its own rules.
Striking opening has glowering hardhead Han-gi spotting pretty college student Sun-hwa sitting primly on a park bench waiting for her boyfriend. Instantly falling for her, Han-gi strides over and forcibly kisses her on the mouth - and hardly notices his subsequent beating by some soldiers and Sun-hwa's total disgust. However, the cute 21-year-old isn't all she seems: Following her some time later, Han-gi finds she owes money and has become a pickpocket. When she takes out a loan in desperation, she ends up signing over her body and becoming a shop-front hooker in an establishment under Han-gi's protection.
With its black, frequently violent humor and a take on female sexuality that's enough to give the PC crowd a coronary, BAD GUY hardly bears examination in realistic terms. If anything, the movie is almost Gallic in tone, finding romance in the scungiest settings and conveying the dull ache of ill-fated lives. With no dialogue but very expressive eyes, Cho works wonders with the character of Han-gi, and Seo, with a slight roughness to her looks, traverses the full range of emotions as Sun-hwa, from wounded deer through spunky rebel to role-playing dream girl. Supporting perfs by other hookers and male low-lifes provide a colorful frame for the central story.