Guilty Pleasure 'Master' Falls Just Short of Crime Film Mastery

Byung-hun Lee in Master (2016)

Master achieves escapist fare early by heaping on layers of vulgar poetry and happily overt symbolism.


Director: Ui-seok Jo
Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Dong-won Kang, Woo-bin Kim, Jin Kyung
Studio: CJ Entertainment
US Release Date: 2017-01-06

While unregulated corporate greed continues to be pardoned by legal systems ruptured with loopholes and larded by procedural malaise, director Ui-seok Jo's Master is an indulgent dream of justice against white collar fraud reached by swift roguish moxie. Effort to suspend disbelief is hardly required, as the film forsakes any false effort at solemn social commentary for punchy popcorn dialogue worthy of more than a few righteous laughs.

Chief among the film's cartoonish lot the villainous President Jin (Byung-hun Lee) of the South Korean profit-sharing pyramid scheme entitled "One Network". Played with a generous serving of comical vileness, Byung-Hun Lee centers Master's breakneck pace of fraud, espionage, and computer hacking on some delicious satire.

Master inundates itself with several grandiose montages and spectacles as the backdrop for Byung-Hun Lee to lap up his billionaire villain role. In an introductory scene oozing with enough insincerity to evoke a few derisive snickers, President Jin announces to a golden lit coliseum packed with sucker investors the genesis of "One Network". Unlike most snake oil salesperson performances, which provide a modicum of earnestness, everything about Jin's speech -- from its absurd content to his crocodile tears -- stinks so badly of malfeasance that not even the most transparent financial schemes and baseless political rhetoric in our current global economy compare.

Master achieves escapist fare early by heaping on layers of vulgar poetry and happily overt symbolism. At one point, Jin quaffs a blood red smoothie as if to leave no doubt just who offed an uncooperative government official. In another scene, after having just splashed around a few grand in hush money through one of his dozen cell phones and laptop computers (a clever indictment against the information age), Jin gruffly brags that politicians are "his dogs, who will eat, bark, and sh*t on his command". These nuggets of hilarious imagery, splayed generously throughout the film, renders Master a nice candidate for guilty viewing pleasure.

Other characters offer President Jin competition for Master's most colorful narcissist, which is just as important to the film as its billion dollar fraud case. The film's hero, Lieutenant Kim Jae Myung (Dong-won Kang) is bent on creatively circumventing search warrants with an arsenal of computer hacking, espionage, and mole deployment. When asked about his methods, Myung proudly declares with a Cheshire grin "Korea deserves a freak like me."

One of Myung's moles, Park Jang-goon (Woo-bin Kim), makes for a fine rogue with a shaky moral compass. An impish hacker extraordinaire who switches allegiances from "One World" to the South Korean Crime Investigation Team -- all while trying to funnel a couple of hundred million bucks for his early retirement fund -- cogently describes himself "a decent fucker" trying to catch an even worse "motherfucker".

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Surely enough, Master keeps individual scenes lively through these larger than life characters, who have a kinetic equilibrium of mutual distrust rife with crackling barbs and deceptive twists. But the film's overdone hero / villain / anti-hero paradigm, which stampedes toward a final encounter with President Jin, renders the plot linear and predictable.

Even more problematic is Master's overlong run-time at two hours and 20 minutes, during which the film refuses to emotionally invest in any of its characters. A stream of snappy palaver may be forgiven in a tight 90-minute action flick, but at 140 minutes without any emotional immersion, Master will likely test one's patience.

This didn't need to be the case, as Master misses opportunities to connect on a more satisfying dramatic level. At one point in the film, the audience gets a glimpse of Lieutenant Myung's apartment -- its walls are swept over by long bookshelves packed holding hundreds of books. A bibliophile in any profession is hard to come by in our techie age, and a deeper immersion into Myung's life -- such as how he uses those books to figure out his next move -- would have made him a more likeable hero.

The same sense of longing is felt for Kim Eom-Ma (Jin Kyung), a manager at One Network who eventually sickens of President Jin. In what is probably the most soulful moment of the film, we see a silhouette of Eom-Ma standing next to candlelight. She quietly declares, "People here follow the money, not men." This is an interesting line and visual effect with a liberating angle. But Master never invests much further in Eom-Ma's liberation; instead, Eom-Ma is used as a rather typical if not sexist plot device for the remainder of the film.

Perhaps these criticisms wouldn't come to bear had Master been a shorter film. However, Master's insistence on taking on an epic format without a substantially epic story line makes its shortcomings all too evident. A true master knows when to slow down, and when to stop. Master, while highly entertaining a good portion of the time, ultimately falls short of the title's promise.


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