The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계, Han Jae-rim: 2007)

Mid-level gangster Kang In-gu is trying to earn enough money and have enough success to please both his boss and his family. Just when he thinks he is succeeding on both fronts, he finds that events begin to spiral out of his control – threatening both his professional and home life…

At his best Song Kang-ho can be very funny – see The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000), The Quiet Family (Kim Jee-woon, 1998), The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) – or very serious and intense – check out J.S.A. (Park Chan-wook, 2000), Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002) – and with The Show Must Go On (Han Jae-rim, 2007) he gets decent opportunity to mix both of these acting skills perfectly. The first half of the film bounces along nicely as a black comedy jumping between In-gu’s home life (looking for a new house with running water) and his gangster dealings (using force to make businessmen sign contracts) as well as a mixture of both (bribing his daughters schoolteacher). Song Kang-ho manages with ease to make In-gu a likeable character, even though his dodgy worklife means that what he is  doing for most of his on-screen time actually makes him a bit of a bastard.

Watching Song Kang-ho curse those around him under his breath as his character winds himself up into a temper is always funny, although director Han Jae-rim reigns in the ‘jokey’ aspects carefully. This is supposed to be a real, recognisable world that In-gu lives in – one with repercussions. It’s these repercussions that come to the fore for the second half of the film – to the point where they eventually come crashing down on Kang In-gus world. There’s a skilled, almost unnoticeable transition between black comedy and comedy-drama as the dramatic aspects are amped up and The Show Must Go On transforms itself into an engaging, intelligent emotional examination of one mans life. It may open with some typically generic elements, but director Han Jae-rim is exploring his characters here on an emotional level – the comedy just serves to warm us to the characters and pull us into their flashy lifestyles. There’s still a couple of nice set-pieces, woven into the drama as it builds towards its finish, but The Show Must Go On keeps its roots in its emotional drama, and pleasingly doesn’t wimp out in its final scenes by depending on any overblown visual spectacle, completely relying instead on the performances of its cast.

As good as his central performance is, The Show Must Go On is far from just being the ‘Song Kang-ho show’. The supporting cast are also excellent – Oh Dal-su, who played the memorable tower block owner in Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) – is excellent as In-goo’s friend and rival gang-member, Park Ji-young is a strong enough as In-gu’s wife to match Kang Song-ho’s cocky criminal, while Choi Il-hwa injects some additional gravitas as the criminal boss.

Visually The Show Must Go On is consistently impressive. A documentary, handheld shooting style is utilised in a way that doesn’t get in between the audience and the on-screen drama. Towards the end of the film there’s a little more ‘camera shake’ – but this is in keeping with the on-screen events rather than trying to make everything look in someway more exciting than it actually is. The cinematography has some moments of real beauty – there’s a few moments where the camera is left lingering longer than you would expect, as if to ensure that you are taking in the scene. As self-indulgent as this lingering may sound, The Show Must Go On doesn’t particularly waste much time on its own self-importance – managing to feel pretty genuine on an emotional level.

A special mention must go to the soundtrack. Plenty of recent Korean films like to make use of rich, orchestral soundtracks but The Show Must Go On opts for a catchy, bouncy soundtrack of its own. Its enjoyably fun theme helps to dive right into the lighthearted mood of the opening scenes of the film. Later however the same theme acquires some depth and resonance as the film gets more serious. It’s good stuff.

In many ways The Show Must Go On seems like a reaction against those appealing gangster thrillers that look and sound cool but have little real substance. By using a typically generic story but rooting it in a fairly realistic way, Han Jae-rim has created a gangster drama with that is genuinely moving and emotionally engaging. The central performance from Song Kang-ho is up there with his best – and this is a man who already has more than a couple of exceptional performances to his name.

우아한 세계 (The Show Must Go On)
Directed by Han Jae-rim
Produced by Gang Tae-woo
Written by Han Jae-rim
Starring Song Kang-ho, Oh Dal-su, Park Ji-young, Choi Il-hwa, Kim So-eun

The Show Must Go On Image © Lucy Film