Insadong Scandal or Insadong Seukaendeul or 인사동 스캔들 (2009)
I suppose the perennial question for all screenwriters, directors and those who put their money into turning the script into a film is, “What makes a good film?” All those with capitalism running through their veins want to see a return on their investments. This means box office success followed by distribution through retail channels on disk or as downloads. Since altruism does not pay the bills nor deliver profit to those in the distribution business, it means the product has to pass beyond an individual’s subjective enjoyment and achieve a common denominator resonance with a mass audience. This is not to say a film that’s only being made in an attempt to appeal to an already established market or to cash in by replicating the formula in another financially successful film is going to be a success. Such films are often rather mechanical and lack any sense of originality. We want the entire crew and cast to care about going beyond the magic formula for the given genre. We want a creative spark to lift us out of the tired repetition of well-known tropes and into something newer and fresher.
In Insadong Scandal or Insadong Seukaendeul or 인사동 스캔들 (2009), we have what may, in Western terms, properly be labelled a “caper movie”. In Korea, it may, perhaps, be considered about revenge. It features Lee Kang-Jun (Kim Rae-Won) who has established himself as an art restorer. In fact, his more profitable business is as a forger — the same talent as an artist applied for a different purpose. The legitimate reputation is seriously damaged when he’s arrested by Choi Ha-Kyeong (Hong Soo-Hyun) and Officer Kang (Kim Byung-Ok). No charges result but the effect of his brush with the law is to push him out of the mainstream. He’s rehabilitated by Bae Tae-Jin (Uhm Jung-Hwa). She runs the leading art gallery in Seoul and, when she acquires a damaged masterpiece from the Joseon Dynasty, she very publicly appoints Lee Kang-Jun as the “expert” to restore it to its former glory. This brings our hero back on to television and giving masterclass tutorials to explain the “art” of restoration.
It soon becomes apparent that Bae Tae-Jin is a crook who uses her reputation to peddle forgeries as the real thing. She runs a group of suppliers and other dealers who divide up the spoils. They succeed because they have the right political connections and tip off the police when their rivals try anything underhanded. This makes them look socially responsible. One of the leading lights of this group is Kwon (Lim Ha-Ryong), a dealer who both supplies legitimate goods to the art market including paints used by art restorers, and imports fakes from around the Asian region. He’s less than pleased because he was bringing in the Joseon painting from Japan where it had been taken following the Japanese occupation of Korea. But, when it arrived on Korean soil, Bae Tae-Jin collected it and now exploits it. This reduces his profit. He had expected to sell it on himself. Now he only gets a percentage.
As we watch the film unfold, Lee Kang-Jun begins work on the restoration but he and a small gang also begin a series of robberies and thefts aimed at the underground art market. In due course, the gang steals from Bae Tae-Jin but she’s able to buy the lost painting back through an illegal auction house. As part of the specialist art unit, Choi Ha-Kyeong and Officer Kang are desperate to identify who’s responsible and try to intimidate Kwon into acting as an informer. They also suspect Lee Kang-Jun is involved. He’s working in the gallery when the first robbery occurs and could easily have masterminded the robbery, telling the thieves how to beat the security system. As is always the case, the set-up proves just a taster for a slightly complicated plot.
Indeed, the problem with this film is that it starts off as if it’s a sequel and everyone (except you, of course) has seen the first part. The structure of the film shows you a lot of different things happening without any explanation of who anyone is nor what their relationships are. This is rather frustrating and it took me until about halfway through to finally understand the themes. Perhaps not unnaturally given the “caper” style of the film, it’s only at the end that you get the big picture (pun intended) explained in more detail. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s actually very clever but it would have benefitted significantly if the director and joint screenwriter Park Hee-Kon (the other screenwriters is Kim Tae-Yoon) had focused more on establishing the key characters. As it is, we have no real way of knowing which players are really important nor how their roles contribute to the film. Out of context scenes do not contribute to an overall understanding. So if you stick with it, Insadong Scandal or Insadong Seukaendeul or 인사동 스캔들 improves as you watch it and ends quite well.