A tragedy-filled redemption tale, a gangster leaves prison but his attempts to go straight are stymied by the town’s criminal underbelly
While Korean cinema has established its reputation for ultra-violence revenge thrillers, in Sunflower the gangster genre is, in the main part at least, subverted for a redemption story.
The pervasive nature of the criminal world and the difficulties those within it face when attempting to leave provide an immovable weight round the neck of Tae-sik (Kim Rae-won) here.
Released from prison, he returns to his hometown, but his fearsome reputation as a violence enforcer has not been forgotten. His former gang mates are cautious about his return, but Tae-sik wants to leave that life behind.
Under a personal oath to not fight again, Tae-sik instead get a job in a local garage, much to the bemusement of the on-looking gang members and the police, also keeping a close eye on the former hell-raiser.
He spends more time with his mother (Kim Hae-sook) at her restaurant and seeks to have his intimidating body tattoos painfully etched away by laser treatment.
Despite these attempts, corrupt local politician Cho Pan-soo (Kim Byeong-ok, Mr. Han from Oldboy minus the blond hair) has plans for an expansive shopping mall and the restaurant belonging to Tae-sik’s mother is the last standing impediment to the development.
Cho Pan-soo utilises the gang members that once thought fought alongside Tae-sik to intimidate his mother and attack the restaurant, despite the gang’s apprehension that Tae-sik will suddenly rediscover his violent streak.
Cho proves to be a ruthless string-puller and thinks nothing of continually pitting the gang against Tae-sik and his mother, testing his resolve to keep his fists lowered.
The film’s notions of pacifism find an inventive way to test our own view of violence. While we think of violence as abhorrent, that view is challenged as Tae-sik suffers brutal attacks and does nothing but lift his arms in protection. It is a disorientating notion. Endorsing Tae-sik’s new start, but also somehow hoping he will slug the goon before him.
It also touches on the notions of hidden talents as Tae-sik has developed an academic flourish for mathematics inside prison, a great mind previously lost in the mincemeat maker of street crime.
More so, it is about how our mistakes, especially those made when young, can translate into permanent transgressions and scars. In a small town such as this, as opposed to the city bustle of a Seoul, such errors are seemingly inescapable.
The film does perhaps lurch too readily into sentimental melodrama, most heavily weighed down by a score which over-emphasises this notion. It is perhaps a rescore away from entering a higher echelon of Korean crime films. However, there are also plenty of elements which more closely match crime masterpiece A Bittersweet Life (2005), especially the violent final showdown.
Overall, this is a film with enough confidence in its purpose to work. To take the vengeance of many such crime films and instead enhance those often less appealing pursuits of redemption and dovishness.