Puzzle or Dodoiyuheui peurojekteu, peojeul or 두뇌유희프로젝트, 퍼즐 (2006)
I suppose the team behind Puzzle or Dodoiyuheui peurojekteu, peojeul or 두뇌유희프로젝트, 퍼즐 (2006) had seen Reservoir Dogs (1992). Some may even have jotted down the odd note or two. In the original, you may recall, six criminals, none of whom have worked together before, are hired by a known crime boss to steal a mess of diamonds. That’s too many people. To cut down on cost, we have a team of five who are called together by an unknown “mastermind”. They are Hwan (Moon Seong-geun) the oldest of those invited to participate and, in due course, the leader of the team; Ryu (Joo Jin-mo) a police officer who crosses the line into active criminality after shooting dead the two men raping his wife; Noh (Hong Seok-cheon) the volatile, shoot-first type who has an embarrassingly aggressive attitude toward women; Jung (Kim Hyun-sung) the calmest and most interesting of the thieves; and Kyu (Park Joon-seok) the youngest and quietly thoughtful getaway driver. The plan is to steal bearer bonds from a bank vault. The four “youngsters” carry through the plan and, with Jang Ji-Won as the bank teller taken as hostage in the boot of their car, they set off for the rendezvous with Hwan at the obligatory deserted warehouse. Unfortunately, when they arrive, they discover Hwan has been shot, his body set on fire, and all their passports and air tickets destroyed. With the hostage handcuffed, the four then try to solve the puzzle of what they should do.
At this point, I need to pause. This is not a remake of Reservoir Dogs. The premise is similar but this is playing a slightly different game. Even if it did not distinguish itself, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a remake. Put the name of Gus Van Sant and Psycho (1998) together and see what you get. There’s actually a reasonably well-established tradition for subtitle-averse Americans to be fed “foreign” films with appropriate cultural and linguistic changes as in Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed. That we have something “American” filtered through “Korean” eyes can, and in this case does, produce something different. Anyway, Tarantino was just reimagining City On Fire (1987) so no-one loses out in these “translations”.
The situation in which our immediate four survivors find themselves is by no means easy because none of them have the expertise or contacts to sell on the bonds for cash. This leaves them stuck unless they can work out who set up the robbery. Obviously, if it’s one of the four, he can then pay them off. If it’s an outsider, they can wait for his or her arrival. Except none of the four look likely candidates as the mastermind and, with Hwan dead, there’s a risk the mastermind may appear with guns blazing and take the bonds from their dead hands. After a number of flashbacks, we understand there’s a common denominator: a crime boss called Nam has a history with all of them including Hwan. This is worrying because he has the muscle to kill them all. They also speculate the bonds they stole belong to him. He could therefore claim on his insurance, sell off the bonds, and take revenge by killing them.
By Korean standards, this is a rather stylised and “arty” film with interesting camera angles and dramatic cutting. Indeed, the cinematography makes this interesting to watch. Structurally, there’s also a good balance between the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in the warehouse and the frequent flashbacks to show how the robbery team came together, executed the robbery, and began their debate as to what to do. We also have detailed backstory elements where we learn about who these individuals are and how they relate to Nam. For this, Kim Tae-kyung (director) is to be congratulated — he’s also joint screenwriter with Yun Yeo-su. As to the quality of the titular puzzle, I thought it was obvious who the mastermind was. There’s a big flag waving in one of the flashbacks about halfway through. But I failed to work out why. The answer is actually in another of the flashbacks so the director is playing fair. But it’s not something immediately obvious.
Put all this together and, despite some slightly gratuitous gore, Puzzle or Dodoiyuheui peurojekteu, peojeul or 두뇌유희프로젝트, 퍼즐 (2006) makes an entertaining ninety minutes of cinema. I’m slightly surprised this is Kim Tae-kyung’s only film as director although this is perhaps explained by the rather poor box office performance which was not really his fault. For the final details of the explanation, you have to watch the scenes shown as the credits roll. It’s quite amusing to see how camera angles can deceive the eye in the main feature.