“No one will die here today—and I will never lie to you,” calmly reassures the Seoul police’s expert negotiator Ha Chae-youn. She moves towards a house. Inside are a pair of Southeast Asian men holding two hostages; the men demand a helicopter to secure their escape. Despite protests from her supervisor, Ha enters the house unarmed to build rapport. As you hear her rational, compassionate words, you start hoping that things will work out in the end. After all, she’s an expert, right?
Unfortunately, things don’t work out. Haunted by the result, our expert negotiator submits her resignation in shame and fear. However, she’s suddenly called back to service when a seemingly deranged kidnapper, Min Tae-gu, specifically asks for her by name. With that beginning, The Negotiation spirals uncontrollably into the hands of this devious kidnapper, making viewers ask: “just exactly how much does this kidnapper know about everyone?”
The Negotiation—a psychological thriller filled to the brim with Korean curse words—is directed by Yoon Je-kyoon (who also directed Sex is Zero and Haeundae). Spearheading the movie as expert negotiator Ha, Son Ye-jin faces off against a ruthless and cunning Hyun Bin, who plays kidnapper Min. If you’re at all familiar with Korean movies and dramas, these veteran names should definitely perk up your ears.
Brisk pacing and constant curveballs are The Negotiation’s strong points. The film cleanly and impressively blends each scene to the next—there are no lulls, no moments of relief to drop the suspense. The movie keeps you on your toes by trickling bits of knowledge, like Chinese water torture. You don’t know when the next hint will come but, when it does, the realization hits you like a brick and you’re left with even more questions than you began with.
Therefore, it is a pleasant surprise when The Negotiation obeys one principle that many modern movies often neglect: Chekhov’s Gun. For those unfamiliar with the concept, famous Russian playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov gave this one bit of sage writing advice: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Many modern blockbusters violate this principle, mentioning seemingly important objects or plot points once and never referring to them afterwards.
On the other hand, as The Negotiation progresses, every event, character, and detail comes together for the finale. To me, this highlights director Yoon’s attention to detail. Laying out these narrative breadcrumbs requires effort, and managing to refer back to all of them takes some serious creativity. Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin’s superb performances only enhance this creativity and suspense. Either of their characters could win the film’s battle of wits, and it’s hard to tell who’s on top at each moment. To top it off, kidnapper Min appears to have an unlimited number of aces up his sleeve. Even after Min shows his cards one after another, it’s clear he knows far more than he lets on—and that he might not be so deranged after all.
In fact, as the movie moves forward, the lines between “good” and “bad” start to blur in the universe of characters—police officials, businessmen, politicians, and other criminals—that surround the negotiator and the hostage taker.
This moral muddying perhaps reflects anxieties in South Korean society. For example, The Negotiation features characters engaging in political corruption through rampant bribery and arms dealing.
Though South Korea enjoys a flourishing democracy, bribery still occurs at the highest levels. Just look at the 2016 Korean Political Scandal, which saw the imprisonment of former President Park Geun-hye and Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-young. Even the head of Korea’s national earthquake research center was convicted in 2017 on bribery and insider trading charges. When certain characters in The Negotiation engage in bribery, it probably hit home for Korean audiences.
Likewise, according to the SIPRI’s (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) 2017 report on trends in international arms transfers, South Korea accounted for 3.4% of all US weapon exports—something The Negotiation also reflects. One the film’s villains imports fighter jets from the US, only to resell them back at a huge markup to the Korean military. For a real-life comparison, the CEO of a top South Korean military supplier resigned over corruption scandal in which the state-owned company manipulated costs for the development of military aircraft by tens of billions of won.
All this corruption has made Koreans hungry for justice; former President Park Geun-hye’s recent impeachment only increased and validated that hunger. This might explain how, in The Negotiation, all the characters involved in any form of corruption receive comeuppance in some way. Corruption might still exist in real life—but Korean audiences can at least satisfy their appetite for justice in theaters with blockbusters like The Negotiation.
All in all, The Negotiation is a refreshing thriller with great acting, a well thought-out screenplay, and relevant commentary on Korean society. For anyone wanting about two hours of constant suspense, this movie is for you.
The Negotiation (Korean 협상)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Yoon Je-kyoon. First released September 2018. Running time 1 hr 54 min. Starring Son Ye-jin, Hyun Bin, Kim Sang-ho, Jang Young-nam.
The Negotiation is currently playing across North American and South Korean theaters.