Picture this story: a white knight prosecutor in pursuit of justice finds unexpected common ground with a handsome underworld figure bent on revenge in a battle against corruption at the highest levels of South Korean power. If you think this sounds a lot like the massively successful 2011 K-drama City Hunter (starring superstar heartthrob Lee Min-ho), I don’t blame you. However, what I’m actually referring to in this case is 2015’s Inside Men, which you could roughly describe as a aromantic, significantly darker, adults-only take on the general City Hunter formula.
Obviously, though they share high level plot tropes, Inside Men and City Hunter have significant differences. While City Hunter is still light-hearted enough for your average teenage girl and replete with romance, familial conflicts, and friendship, Inside Men offers a stark, violent world dominated quite literally by scenes of men in smoke-filled rooms. Based on a popular webcomic, Inside Men depicts the unlikely partnership of Prosecutor Woo Jang-hoon (played by Jo Seung-woo) and gangster Ahn Sang-goo (played by Lee Byung-hun) as both fight to unmask a web of corruption centered around Jang Pil-woo, a Congressman seeking the South Korean presidency. Representing an unholy trinity of politics, media, and business, Jang has teamed up with a reporter named Lee Kang-hee (played by Baek Yoon-sik) and the Chairman of an automobile conglomerate to accumulate power through manipulating public opinion, setting up slush funds, and terrorizing anyone who gets in their way. Nothing is off limits: torture, blackmail, murder — you name it, they’ll do it.
All this makes for some very family-unfriendly watching. There’s gangster fights, gore, hands getting chopped off, and plenty of general physical violence. Beyond that is the sex and booze — Congressman Jang holds regular dinner parties for his “inside men” that embody a level of debauchery that many fantasize about but few obtain. We’re treated to not only topless prostitutes performing sex acts whilst the men discuss their schemes, but also a wonderfully obscene scene in which Jang and his insiders quite literally whip around their manhoods in a testosterone (and alcohol) fueled competition.
These party scenes make Inside Men feel a lot like The President’s Last Bang (a 2005 black comedy about the Park Chung-hee administration) both visually and stylistically. The dining rooms that Jang’s parties take place in look the same as those of Park Chung-hee in the latter movie with their traditional Korean paneling. What goes on in these parties is also the same: discussion of corrupt, undemocratic schemes interspersed with objectified female company. Even more intriguing is how actor Baek Yoon-sik stars as a villain–and attends the corresponding parties–in both of those movies, meaning that we quite literally see the same face in the same setting, representing the same corruption that continues to pervade the same country. If that was an intentional casting decision, I’m highly impressed.
Inside Men executes a synthesis of numerous traditions in South Korean media—gangster films, vengeance plays, lionized prosecutors, political corruption–but it’s not unique in doing so. Earlier in the same year Gangnam Blues hit South Korean theaters telling another tale of corrupt politicians and gangsters fighting their way to power and riches. However, while Gangnam Blues wasn’t bad, Inside Men is a superior piece: while the former included extraneous subplots and probably made stylistic compromises in order to come off as more marketable, Inside Men represents a more raw, faithful, and ultimately poignant narrative. Whereas Gangnam Blues feels more like your average action movie, whereas Inside Men is much more mature, a piece that’s not just entertaining but also imbued with rich socio-political commentary and relevance.
This might explain the film’s relative success at the South Korean box office: it’s the highest grossing R-rated Korean film of all time (so far). Though obviously dramatized, Inside Men‘s story has elements that have timely precedent in real-life South Korean politics. Just months before the film’s release, the Prime Minister of South Korea was forced to resign in April 2015 only two months into his tenure after allegations of bribery surfaced. Fictional Congressman Jang’s “New Party” bears also passing resemblances to the ruling conservative Saenuri Party (translated as “New Frontier Policy”), which has itself been accused of activities like colluding with the country’s National Intelligence Service to manipulate public opinion before the 2012 Presidential Election.
Inside Men is a synthesis across numerous traditions and tropes of Korean film and television; its constituent pieces aren’t particularly original, but it manages to put them together into a compelling and captivating narrative. Refusing to sacrifice its rightfully dark and cynical tone, it rises above similarly-themed movies and establishes itself, for better or for worse, as a powerful and incisive critique of contemporary South Korean politics.
Inside Men (Korean: 내부자들)--South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Woo Min-ho. First released November 2015. Running time 3hr. Starring Lee Byung-hun, Jo Seung-woo, and Baek Yoon-sik.