The Apprehenders (South Korea, 2011)

The Apprehenders a.k.a. Officer of the Year is one of the few bright spots in what has been a relatively disappointing commercial output for Chungmoro, a district in Seoul commonly regarded as South Korea’s Hollywood, in early 2011. Park Joong-hoon, one of the heavyweight stars of past and current Korean cinema who has experienced a renaissance recently with strong roles in Haeundae (2009), Hanji (2011), and My Dear Desperado (2010), subsequent to a three-year hiatus, teams up with Lee Seon-gyoon, who has impressed recently with roles in Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie (2010) and the solid rom-com Petty Romance (2010), for this effective and often-hilarious action comedy.

The film walks on often-trod ground as it focuses on the police in Korea and their less than noble priorities when it comes to apprehending criminals. Even the slightest exposure to Korean cinema will result in this being no surprise, but although it doesn’t go to the lengths of exposing a perceived national pariah in the way that the likes of Peppermint Candy (1999), The Unjust (2010) and many others have, it strangely brought to mind my favorite television series, The Wire (2002-2008). While one has really little to do with the other, I was reminded of one of the main themes which ran through most of the series, ‘duking the stats’ to make the endeavors of the department far more palatable than they really are, for the benefit of perception and politics.

The Apprehenders uses this statistical obsession as its starting point, Detective Hwang (Park) is the big kahuna of law enforcement with more arrests than anyone.  He is the reigning Officer of the Year, while police academy graduate Detective Jeong (Lee) desperately wants the prize money that this honor affords in order to buy a house with his bride-to-be. They are the lead detectives in two competing precincts, Mapo and Seodaemun, who seem hellbent on upstaging one another and stealing each other’s collars. While this large scale game of one-upmanship and bravado is essentially a way to pit the main protagonists against each other, it also cleverly and surreptitiously introduces the idea that policing in Korea is not performed with the intent that it should be. As far as legal, judiciary, and enforcement careers go, there has always been a problem, the world over, as to how one should balance the careerist advancement of the self and the moralistic pursuit of the greater good. More often than not, the greater good is a noble notion that is idealized, but not sought or achieved.

While the detectives go at it, there is a series of brutal rapes in the city and now the police commissioner has made it a priority to track the perpetrator down. Naturally, a joint task force is created between Mapo and Seodaemun and instead of helping one another catch the criminal, they hinder each other and arguably spoil the chance to catch him, in effect leaving him free to violate further victims. I wonder if it was the intent of the filmmakers to lay this quandary in our laps: was it the reckless, arrogant, and stubborn refusal of the principal detectives to collaborate that lead to an innocent 15-year-old being brutally beaten and raped after they let him get away? I’m not sure that they are directly inferring this, but the possibility, which could significantly alter how you the view the film, is there.

Aside from this, the film is a relatively straightforward dual protagonist narrative that is played for broad laughs and these are achieved in no small part due to the strong chemistry between Park and Lee. The direction is even-handed and lets the actors shine through the script’s often clever dialogue. There were three people credited with writing this screenplay, including director Lim Chan-ik. Choi Jin-won is the only one with any work I’m familiar with as he wrote last year’s Bad Couple, which I didn’t like very much, but this may have had more to do with the lead actors in that project rather than his writing.

My main gripe with the film is the shift in tone as its protagonists get together to genuinely catch the rapist.  The tone becomes much more somber and sadly self-serious as we make the rounds of the traumatized victims.  I felt this shift did not keep with the levity of the rest of the film and when contrasted with the main comedic thrust of the plot, it seemed borderline inappropriate.

The Apprehenders works best as a fun action comedy anchored by two strong lead performances. The chase sequences are well-rendered, the supporting characters each have something to add, and the great dialogue keeps everything rolling together. A solid genre entry all around.

Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.