No words meld in satire the way capitalism and hedonism do, the two ideas have been appropriated by filmmakers for decades but it wasn’t until Martin Scorsese’s bacchanalian work of art The Wolf of Wall Street (now a high-flown pop culture obsession) did filmmakers tearing down the walls of inflated hedonism become so trendy, and for good reason. Although men like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone or Brian De Palma fully acknowledge, and showcase, the innate ugliness of over-extravagance (along with the boredom, corruption & self-destruction that follow it), their films also profited off hedonism’s irrefutable allure to the every day individual.
It’s almost impossible for a South Korean film like The King to not draw immediate comparisons to The Wolf of Wall Street, with its wild frat parties in business suits, white-collar gangsterism and the inborn desire to escape blue-collar destitution parallel strongly with Scorsese’s vision, but there’s something of an intrinsic goodness and naivety which The King embodies, something you won’t find in America’s more nihilistic critiques on capitalist-culture.
The moral emphasis of Park Tae-soo (Jo In-sung), a South Korean prosecutor lured into the world of high-end luxury and crime, feels symptomatically been-there-done-that. The film’s apparent oddness and its attempts at absurdist humor and melodrama are admirable, if only because they effectively dismantle the strict adherence to cynicism infesting these types modernistic parables. But there’s still something a little too familiar about director Han Jae-rim’s approach. It goes without saying that clichés are incumbent in most films, but where the best films hide them in plain sight through subtle deviations, The King exhausts them as stale etiquette, making each cliché achingly patent.
Park Tae-soo, a prosecutor who escapes deskwork to become a crooked shill for higher-ups, finds himself in a scenario which seem to defy the ethical complexities normally associated with capitalist greed and corruption. The moment in which Tae-soo is confronted by Han Kang-shik (Jung woo-sing), the leader of a clique of powerful prosecutors, feels less like a moment of materialistic seduction than it does tribal strong-arming; this effectively allows Jae-rim to overturn the complexities and diversity of human corruption into a blanket statement of good & evil.
Issues like this is why comparisons to The Wolf of Wall Street are absolutely pertinent. The seduction of Tae-soo in The King is replete with self-doubt, but the indications that this is an actual dilemma are hollow. What amounts to Tae-soo symbolically agreeing to share a drink with the corrupt prosecutors proves to be, through the film’s eyes, a moment of moral defeat, not moral conflict. The King is a two-dimensional portrait of capitalist greed, at best it portrays modern evils as they are but it still lacks the cunning even-hand which made those same evils in The Wolf of Wall Street equal parts heinous and desirable.
The King beams with passionate feeling and protest, but none of it effectively translates into passionate insight. Yet Jae-rim’s redemptive saga, an unmistakably truistic reformist fairy-tale, is not an entirely unqualified statement of political interest. The King is brimming with undisguised outrage and expressive hatred for the atrocities committed by the South Korean powers that be. The corrupt politicians and prosecutors here are appropriately shaped into the film’s moral villains, despite never rising above caricature. The King, which is slick, frenetic and never boring, caricaturizes itself in many ways, a style which compliments Jae-rim’s ideas but consistently fails to elaborate on them with any real-life context.
If anything, The King seems to be at its most adept at dramatizing its characters and stories (neither of which are truly subpar), but even in its best moments of humor and drama the film begins to veer dangerously close to propaganda. Tae-soo’s criminal sidekick Choi Doo-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) accompanies the film with indelible flirtation with “actual” crime, but his martyr status by the end is a troubling idealistic notion which demonizes political corruption by way of worshipping criminal subversion. The ending, which seems to condense the entire film’s message into a single sellable caption, will probably leave some truly moved by its platitude, which is stodgy and shallow at best. And despite the pronounced truths The King does offers us, it’s seething objection on the state of political power proves to be an empty debate, a sales pitch on “democracy” which fails to effectively democratize its subjects.