Winningly over-the-top Korean gangster drama Asura: The City of Madness is what you’d get if you combined The Wire with a really good soap opera.
It concerns a city plagued by corrupt politicians, bullying lawyers and crooked cops, but the key difference between David Simon’s and writer/director Kim Sung-su’s respective visions of systemic urban corruption is that Simon reels viewers in with complex dialogue and characterizations while Kim deploys an escalating series of sudsy plot twists.
Bribes, beatings and betrayals force antiheroic cop Han (Jung Woo-sung) to spy on villainous Mayor Park (Hwang Jung-min) for good-guy prosecutor Cha-in (Kwak Do-won). Each new melodramatic development invites anticipation about what low Han might sink to next. What else can he do to save his own skin after he’s cheated on his dying wife (Oh Yeon-ah), sold out a faithful informant/lackey (Kim Won-hae) and ratted on his cocky young partner (Ju Ji-hoon)?
Han’s desperate plight resonates because Jung makes him seem believably dangerous, especially when he takes a bite out of a glass beer mug in order to get the attention of a characteristically dismissive Park. Jung’s blood-soaked mouth may repulse you, but his scorching glare will make you nervous. Come for Asura: The City of Madness’ hyper-pulpy story, stay for its ferocious lead performance.
Asura: The City of Madness
Written and directed by Kim Sung-su
Opens October 14, AMC Empire 25