Detective Jo Won-ho is an overworked narcotics detective obsessed with capturing the mysterious master criminal known only as Mr. Lee. The movie opens as Detective Jo’s snitch, a teenage drug mule, is brutally murdered by Mr. Lee, and Ms. Oh, one of the latter’s underlings, throws herself at Jo’s feet, after her colleagues are blown sky high by a bomb. Ms. Oh is convinced that Mr. Lee is getting rid of his management team to reboot his organization. Jo manages to find in the rubble of the building a wounded young man, Young-rak, a low-ranking but important liaison officer for the syndicate. Persuading him that Mr. Lee needs to be punished, the detective enlists Rok’s cooperation.
Writer/director Lee Hae-young may have seemed like an unconventional choice for adapting Johnnie To’s lacerating Drug War (2013) into the Korean context. Indeed, given the latter’s withering view of Chinese law enforcement and social order, Asian masculinity, and the very notion of justice, as well as its cuttingly precise filmmaking style that recalls ‘70s-era William Friedkin or Paul Schrader, one might ask if there was really any reason to remake it. It must have been obvious that a literal, faithful replication would not have worked. As it turns out, Believer, while neither as powerful nor as ruthless as Drug War, has its own gaudy, genre-driven strengths.
Believer retains the tense and morally ambivalent relationship between the main investigating officer and the criminal-turned-reluctant-partner, but its plot and characterization significantly deviate from the Hong Kong actioner. Lee unfurls his plot almost languidly, and instead relies on its great cast. For starters, the late Kim Joo-hyuk does a compelling job with what appears at first glance to be the most cliché-ridden role in the film, a drug lord hopelessly addicted to his own wares. Cha Seung-won beautifully conveys narcissistic rottenness of Brian Lee, rolling out his dialogue in the speech pattern of a TV evangelist crossed with a self-help guru, like Bill Murray doing an impersonation of Deepak Chopra.
The film is firmly anchored by Cho Jin-woong, whose Detective Jo goes through some unexpected, not exactly welcome realizations about himself: a character arc that I thought was handled quite well. If I were to push the American cinema analogy further, Cho at this point of his career reminds me a bit of Jeff Bridges, in the way that he makes the viewer note his robust physical presence, yet does not rely on large “acting” to make his point. However, the movie ultimately belongs to Ryu Jun-yeol, who has perhaps the most difficult job, keeping Young-rak’s motivations and internal conflicts carefully under wraps but not totally opaque to the viewers. Some have complained that the young hoodlum makes little sense as a character, but I think Young-rak is a good foil for the film’s more operatic villains.
No doubt buoyed by its star power, Believer scored 2018’s first big domestic box office success, collecting 5.06 million tickets in six weeks. Fans of Johnnie To in his patented economical, precision-sniper mode might not see much to like here, but for me, the Korean not-quite-a-remake worked as a sort of cinematic graphic novel, off-kilter and perhaps even borderline daft, but with some unexpectedly resonant character conflicts that pay off at the end.