South Korea, 2022, 97’, Korean
Directed by: Lee Jae-won
Screenplay: Lee Jae-won
Photography (color): Jeong Grim
Production Design: Kim Jin-young
Editing: Lee Jae-won
Producers: Park Jong-chan
Cast: Seo Hyun-woo (Tae-gyun), Lee Myeong-ro (Tae-min), Lee Sul (Mi-young), Park Seung-tae (Ok-sun), Kim Gyu-baek (Jun-mo), Choi Euna (In-suk), Ahn Il-kwon (Ki-chul)
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Everyone seems to owe money to someone else in the small town of Jeongseon in the mountains of Gangwon Province, not far from Gangneung. Perhaps this is because the town’s only attraction of note is a large casino.
As the film opens, Tae-min is splayed in the back seat of his car, drugged and barely conscious, as two debt collectors he doesn’t recognize drive him across town. They take the car to a pawn shop, exchange it for some cash, and leave Tae-min on the sofa, the receipt in his pocket. When he wakes up he no longer owns his car, and he’s not even sure which debt he just paid off.
It’s a nice car, an Audi A4 with a Thunderbird sticker on the windshield. But there’s more: only Tae-min knows that inside the trunk of the car is 50 million won (about $45,000) in cash, which he recently won at the casino. He walks to the parking garage where he suspects the car is being stored, but before he can enter, he gets beaten up by another pair of debt collectors. In the end, his only option is to raise enough cash to buy back the car, and then use the money in the trunk to pay everyone back.
It’s at this point that he calls his older brother Tae-gyun. Tae-gyun works as a taxi driver, but dreams of escaping Jeongseon and moving to Seoul, the city where he got his degree. He too is tied down by money troubles, however. When he hears about his brother’s predicament, and about the cash in the trunk, he agrees to help, hoping he might get back some of the money his brother owes him.
Thunderbird takes place over a long winter night in which many things do not go according to plan. Tae-gyun and Tae-min are opposites in many ways, with Tae-gyun’s more measured style contrasting with Tae-min’s impulsiveness and rash improvisation (when asked how he could afford an Audi, he responds, “You don't buy a car with money, you buy it with guts.”) But Tae-gyun too is desperate, and willing to take risks that in normal times he might avoid. The two brothers, plus Tae-min’s streetwise girlfriend, who is unpredictable in her own way, make for a volatile combination.
The feature debut of writer-director Lee Jae-won, Thunderbird is impressive in more ways than one. We encounter a wide range of characters in the course of the night, but however briefly they appear on screen, each one is distinctive and memorable in their own way. The relationships between the characters are constantly shifting, and they grow ever more three-dimensional as we spend more time with them. It’s also refreshing that the film never resorts to presenting characters as simply good or bad; there are things to admire and things to loathe in all of them. The actors, for their part, give incredibly natural and engaging performances, from Seo Hyun-woo as the older Tae-gyun, to Lee Myeong-ro’s spiky portrayal of Tae-min and the talented Lee Sul as Tae-min’s girlfriend Mi-young.
It’s hard to characterize Thunderbird in terms of genre. It’s as tense and gripping as any thriller, but far more realistic than most Korean genre films. It captures many of modern society’s blatant contradictions and inequities, yet it never feels like it’s structured around a particular social message. It’s the sort of film that audiences just have to discover for themselves – but when they do, they are likely to be impressed.
Lee Jae-won made his feature debut Thunderbird after being selected for the Korean Academy of Film Arts’ feature film production program. It receives its world premiere at the Far East Film Festival 24.
2022 – Thunderbird