Cho Ui-seok’s Master opens in media res, asking us to piece together at least an act’s worth of exposition on the fly, as police officers infiltrate a vast seminar overseen by President Jin (Lee Byung-hun), the leader of a pyramid scheme that’s about to enter global banking with the help of corrupt officials. The contrasts are established with succinct bluntness: Jin is the handsomely polished schemer, while Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) is the doggedly earnest police captain who sacrifices politics, protocol, and any scintilla of a personal life so as to nab the bad guys and flush out the rotting government existing at the top of South Korea’s society. In between Jin and Kim are a variety of minions and intermediaries, most memorably Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin), a feisty young systems manager who appears to switch allegiances between cops and crooks dozens of times throughout the narrative.
The opening set piece accomplishedly juggles multiple variables, cross-cutting between Jin, Kim, and Park as they text and spy and scurry throughout the large stadium that houses Jin’s legion of patsies. Cho directs this sequence with a mesmerizingly sexy yet derivative sleekness, fetishizing cellphones, computers, silvery color tones, and, above all, the anxious yet elegant movement of his own camera across wide spaces, which are navigated by the characters with becoming decisiveness. Cho understands that audiences are drawn to process, to the nuts and bolts of ecosystems functioning at high efficiency, and this film’s opening suggests a gleeful merging of the beginning of Snake Eyes with the entirety of Infernal Affairs and Drug War.
Master lacks the subtextual undertow of those other films, however, as it’s ultimately a toy occupied only with one-upping itself, springing double-cross after double-cross until resetting halfway through the running time to essentially provide a sequel to itself. Jin eludes Kim and flees to Manila, and Kim finds him again and sets up another trap that brings to mind the ruse from The Sting. The film is seemingly terrified of boring us, offering one elaborate montage of catch and release (or of survey and flee) after another, and Cho’s virtuosity soon proves self-conscious and wearying. Master is bogged down by the maximalism that has elevated many amazing South Korean thrillers to be released in the United States over the last several years. The film lacks a sense of emotional escalation, and its vision of South Korea being cleansed overnight of the businesspeople who continually threaten to topple various economies is insultingly pat.
Yet Master also offers a font of enthusiastically lurid grace notes. Despite the handwringing over Jin’s greed and avarice, he’s naturally the most compelling character here. Cho revels in the excess of his villain, which Lee plays with an entitlement that oscillates resonantly between the haughty, lethal, and pretentiously Zen; the character is another corporate lizard who can preach emptily of teamwork as long he’s understood to be at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Jin is one step away from being a James Bond villain, as he favors a cavernous lair with a tank of exotic fish, which is where he hides the film’s MacGuffin, while smoking expensive cigars, downing photogenic liquor, and ordering up nearly priceless escorts for a quick rendezvous before jetting off to the next power meeting for world dominion.
Worker-bee Kim can’t possibly compete with Jin’s audience-wish-fulfilling debauchery, and Master lacks the nasty pragmatism necessary to acknowledge this irony. Instead of condescendingly simplifying Jin’s victims as peaceful, weeping ciphers, Cho might’ve understood them to be bamboozled by visions of possessing what Jin so intoxicatingly has: power.