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Fate (2008)

Song Seung-Heon and Kwon Sang-Woo in Fate.
Korean: 숙명
Year: 2008  
Director: Kim Hae-Gon  
Writer: Kim Hae-Gon  
  Cast: Song Seung-Heon, Kwon Sang-Woo, Kim In-Kwon, Park Han-Byul, Min Eung-Sik, Kim Min-Joo, Ahn Nae-Sang, Jeong Woo
  The Skinny: A violent and ugly crime melodrama, Fate is all about its pretty stars being tough and manly. But A Better Tomorrow this ain't.
Kevin Ma:
Pretty people do some pretty ugly things in Fate, the latest addition to a long tradition of Korean gangster movies. This time it's all about the stars: Song Seung-Heon takes on his first film after completing his two-year duty in the army, and Stairway to Heaven heartthrob Kwon Sang-Woo takes on a rare villain role. In addition to the abs-filled poster, the main selling point of the film is the two macho tough guys going up against each other in a violent grudge match that only a Korean gangster film could deliver. Those also happen to be the best things in this exhausting and sometimes sadistic crime melodrama.

One of the posters for the film shows the two manly men hugging each other like best friends, but actor-turned-writer-director Kim Hae-Gon doesn't bother developing any of that. The film starts at the beginning of their friendship's disintegration, as Woo-Min (Song) and Cheol-Jong (Kwon) lead their gangster buddies in a daring heist at a casino. The opening scene features the usual drop kicks and unrelenting use of blunt objects seen in gangster films, but it makes for an exciting opening. However, things go immediately downhill when it's revealed that Cheol-Jong betrayed his friends to the boss, and Woo-Min is sent to prison as the scapegoat for two years.

When Woo-Min gets out of prison, he finds out that everything has changed. His partners-in-crime are all out of the game and in hiding, his girlfriend just wants to move past him, and even Cheol-Jong, now a small-time boss, is having trouble with his mob-backed construction project. That doesn't stop Woo-Min from trying to pick up the pieces while also carrying a major grudge against his former friend and partner. The problem is that Kim never bothers to show that the two were friends in the first place. We're supposed to believe that the broken friendship is the film's great tragedy, but Kim spends too much time building conflicts, without providing any reason for us to care who wins.

While Cheol-Jong is portrayed as the violent gangster with a short temper, Kim also tries to lend some sympathy to the character via his relationship with his younger sister (similar to The Godfather, except with more trash can beatings). On the other hand, "good guy" Woo-Min doesn't come off as a likable character, either. When there's nobody to fight, he wanders around gangster territories doing things like threatening his best friend's physically abused girlfriend from leaving the relationship.

Said best friend Do-Wan (Kim In-Kwon), who sinks from fighting badass in the opening heist to a mentally unstable drug addict for the rest of the film, also provides the central plot's biggest distraction and some of the film's most disturbing scenes. The gangster aspect of the story already supplies plenty of stabbings, punches, and beatings with metal bats, but Do-Wan's plot line also adds mutilation and drug addiction to the mess, pushing the film's violence close to gratuitous territory. While Kim In-Kwon gives an admirable performance as the rock-bottom junkie with a violent edge, his character is easily the most unpleasant thing in the film.

However, that's also Fate's most admirable aspect. Like many gangster films, the females in Fate are thrown around as sex objects and called degrading names throughout (though apparently some of it is just tough love). However, the pretty-looking male stars are not afraid to alienate their own female fan base around the world with their despicable behavior. That's why the stars are still the main reason for watching the film, with Kwon dominating the screen as the ill-tempered Cheol-Jung. While all the anger comes off as overacting at times, Kwon still makes a pretty menacing bad guy. Even Song manages to register some sympathy towards the second half as things get out of control around him, and his army stint obviously helped his agility in the action scenes.

The action is also one of Kim's strengths as the director. Despite some over-editing, Kim stages at least two impressive brawls, including the centerpiece street brawl between Woo-Min, about 20 other thugs, and a total lack of law enforcement. However, Kim is ultimately weighted down by his ultra-serious themes and his ambition to create some kind of grand and violent tragedy with a purpose. Even though Woo-Min laments his unavoidable fate with the crime world in the voiceovers, much of the unfortunate situations that his character finds himself in are simply the result of bad choices instead of some cosmic force. In the end, Fate does succeed as a downer only because the film is violent and ugly, not because the audience is engaged emotionally with the characters and the situations. In fact, Kim doesn't even bother showing his two main stars as friends until the very last scene, which features the topless stars playing rugby. It may be too little development arriving too late for some. But for many others, it's probably the worthy payoff they waited two hours for. (Kevin Ma, 2008)


DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
2-Disc Limited Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Korean Subtitles
Various Extras


image credit: Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen