Ki-tae and Cheol-su are a couple of young street toughs looking to get married to the mob. Cheol-su fancies himself an enforcer for the local “working girls,” while Ki-tae protects neighborhood kids from other would-be hoodlums. Through their connections, they end up taking part in a big-time drug deal. When the exchange turns deadly, the boys break ranks and flee. The crime boss is none too pleased with their panicking, and demands that they either repay the lost $10,000, or avenge those who died.
Naturally, the guys try to raise the cash while keeping one step ahead of the law. When Ki-tae stumbles across a big bag of cocaine, they see a possible way out of their predicament. With the help of a hooker friend, they head off to Japan to make a deal worth $500,000. This way, they can repay the boss and start life over again. But there is someone from their past, someone very angry, who wants his own satisfaction, and he won’t take an apology, or cash, to quell it.
Loud, illogical, and without a single redeeming character, Jungle Juice is the Korean cinema’s idea of an American mob comedy. You know the kind - idiots want to join the syndicate, screw up a big job, end up owing the bosses big time, and botch their way through trying to replace the cash/stash. Profanity is tossed about freely, and violence forms both the slapstick and the sinister quality of the narrative. In the end, we are rooting for our amateur anti-heroes, since no one wants the gangsters to win and, with the help of a surprising ally, our leads learn a lesson and get some manner of backwards reward in the process.
It should work effortlessly. We should grow in our acceptance of these misfits, learn why the wrong side of the law holds such an allure, and realize that the adventures we’ve witnessed were all part of some strange coming-of-age ritual that results in change and catharsis. Without these elements, we have nothing but a “crime is glamorous” crapshoot that kills its purpose with firepower and foolishness.
But director Min-Ho Cho doesn’t understand the basics of balance. He allows Jungle Juice to careen all over the screen, moving from dark drama to way-out wackiness in a manner that is both awkward and obvious. In his lead roles, he employs two over-the-top baboons (actually, actors Hyuk Jang and Beom-su Lee) and forces them to mug, mince, and basically mess about without a single scintilla of purpose. No attempt at dimension or depth is made, and their cartoonish capering is about as endearing as an ear infection. In essence, they are not really part of the story.
They are like the necessary linking verb in a sentence, a way of connecting the drug-dealing story with the gang violence goofiness. Min-ho doesn’t even set up the story properly. Instead, we are introduced to necessary elements in offhand, haphazard fashion. The backstory involving sports and college? It’s part of a post-coital tryst with a hooker. The entire power struggle playing out in the mob? Left to a couple of casual comments between the hoods. One character’s missing testicle? A one-off joke that goes nowhere. Instead of setting up clear distinctions, believable aims, and straightforward action, everything here swirls around like a bunch of rats caught in a sewer riptide…and all we are left with is the smell.
Not only is Jungle Juice an outrage, but it can also be categorized as something much worse - the promising film that pisses all of its potential away. There really is no hope for these brain-dead dolts, but the whore with a heart of ice and a decided derring-do (she is nicknamed Meg Ryan and is played with pluck by Hye-jin Jeon) would make a natural center for the story. Our unpleasant putzes could be tossed aside, and Min-ho could have made this Meg’s story of survival and double-crossing. She has the most interesting history, her resolve is fierce and independent, and she manages to thwart those situations that her idiotic partners fall into like fruit carts during a chase scene.
But Min-ho keeps her minor, never letting anything she does or determines overwhelm her miserable macho sidekicks. Perhaps it’s a sly commentary on Asian social structure, or a way of representing girl power without shooting off sparks, but it’s boring. Indeed, almost all of Jungle Juice is inert and uninteresting. Even the title tonic - a homemade brew that leads to some heady hallucinations - makes a single, sad appearance here before disappearing into the ephemera.
At the one-hour mark, we are wishing for something to happen, and at the one-hour-and-30-minute mark, we just want it to end. Jungle Juice could very easily be called Bungled Sap or Botched Brew as it lumbers along on screams, curse words, and…not much else. This is moviemaking as an amplified experience, with everything turned up to Spinal Tap‘s “11,” without any of that film’s wit, wisdom, satire, or irony. While it’s a professional and high-profile movie to look at (this is no low-budget romp), we are still treated to a scattershot story that never settles in to allow us entry.
It may have sides splitting in Seoul and be breaking box-office records in Bangkok, but for some reason, Jungle Juice just doesn’t translate to a Western ideal - and the funny thing is, it more or less steals, openly and honestly, from the British and American indie scene from the last two decades. Two better and more accurate titles would have been Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Dimwits or Dolt Fiction, since this is one homage that is hasty and malformed. Unless you’re some manner of Asian film completist, there is no reason to sample this stale, stinking fluid.