South Korea’s thriving film industry gets skewered in Rough Play, a dark satire that chronicles a young actor’s rise and fall. Serving as writer and co-producer, prolific provocateur Kim Ki-duk has tasked director Shin Yeon-shick with pulling off a tricky balancing act as Rough Play contains meta references to Kim’s independent works yet is glossily packaged as a stand-alone morality tale on the temptations of fame for a comparatively mainstream audience.
Oh Young (Lee Joon) is an unknown actor whose film appearances are limited to minor parts but has managed to parlay his unorthodox performance methods and authentic presence into securing the lead role in a small theatrical production. Unfortunately, Young has a tendency to go too far to achieve realism, and the play is cancelled when he almost chokes his female co-star to death in an extreme burst of improvisation. Although most directors and actors are infuriated by Young’s techniques, the performer’s potential is noticed by Kim Jang-Ho (Seo Bum-Suk), a once-powerful talent manager who has fallen on hard times but just needs the right client to get back on top. Young initially spurns his services, but eventually relents, realizing that he needs to raise his profile if he is to regularly secure sufficiently challenging roles. A significant role opposite a current heartthrob brings Young considerable attention when he outshines the leading man who is acting on autopilot, thereby enabling him to make the leap to star status. However, rather than using his newfound clout to develop as an artist, Young instead becomes insufferably arrogant and alienates those close to him, then finds himself at the center of scandal that suddenly derails his career.
Rough Play is not the only recent South Korean film to take a swipe at the machinations of the local industry, which has become a supercharged machine in the past decade or so, discovering and sweeping aside screen idols at an increasingly alarming rate in pursuit of the next big thing. Not as linear as the similarly themed Top Star (2013), the film is a companion piece to the Kim-produced Rough Cut (2008), which blurred the lines between on and off-screen violence with its study of the volatile creative relationship between a movie star and a gangster. While the premise of Rough Cut enabled it to play as an abstract action movie, Rough Play is stuck with a more conventional narrative that would serve as an industry expose if it did not reveal what most people already know: artistic values soon erode in an environment defined by artificiality and excess, while fans are fickle and the attendant media wait for stars to slip-up in order to profit from celebrity indiscretion. As in Rough Cut, gangsters play a role here and even the legitimate areas of the entertainment world have parallels to organized crime with their close-knit ties, personal vendettas and capacity for double-dealing. Rough Play, however, is less an indictment of the film industry’s shadier elements than it is of the potential narcissism of the fame-hungry actors who climb its ladder by skipping a few rungs, rapidly developing a sense of entitlement as the endorsement opportunities flood in.
In this respect, the character of Young should make for an interesting focal point since he is introduced as a committed, if undisciplined, method actor rather than as a performer who craves the spotlight, but any sense of the internal tension that should stem from an artist being pushed in a direction that he claims to have little interest in dissipates as soon as Young hits the big time. A few phone calls to his unseen mother suggest that Young may have chosen to pursue stardom in order to provide for his cash-strapped family, but his private life receives little attention. Caught in a rare private moment, he is framed with posters that promote his star image, suggesting the loss of personal identity as Young is filtered through the publicity machine, but so little of his background is explored – beyond his dedication to his craft – that it is hard to care about his tragic metamorphosis. Making the transition from television to movies, Lee is not quite ready for his close up and struggles to flesh out this sketchy character. Lee’s performance oscillates between mannered nonchalance and fits of lunacy, making Young a less than convincing candidate for stardom, however fleeting his appeal may prove to be.
Kim devotees may want to seek out Rough Play for its links to the auteur’s life and work: Young’s choking of his co-star references the accident that occurred on the set of Dream (2008) when Lee Na-young nearly died by hanging while shooting her characters’ suicide scene, and his controversy-baiting Moebius (2013) is used as a film-within-a-film. However, they are unlikely to glean much insight from such meta elements, while Rough Play is often repellent in the one-note cynicism that pervades its examination of an overly familiar subject.