THE DRUG KING (2018)
The brilliance of Song Kang-ho holds together a familiar tale of the rise and fall of a 1970s drug lord
It was little surprise Netflix picked up the worldwide distribution rights to The Drug King, such is the streaming platform’s thirst for retro narcotics crime stories.
This addition is largely a mash-up of those previous works with Song Kang-ho recruited, which by itself does not sound like a completely bad idea.
However, Korean cinema excels best when it addresses issues or stories unique to the country’s make-up.
Despite this being based on the real life story of Lee Doo-sam, a drug smuggler from Busan's crime underworld in the 1970s, Woo re-treads too much familiar territory to allow the film to add much to an already busy genre.
That does not mean the film is devoid of entertainment as there are plenty of engaging, stylish moment. And perhaps most importantly, it finds Song on his usual top form, adding a comedic dimension to the drug lord patter.
We meet Lee (Song) in the early 1970s as he smuggles diamonds and other products, but he learns the true money is to be made in drugs, specifically ‘crank’ (Methamphetamine, or just meth).
The venture is initially established as a patriotic act. Convinced that Chinese power was historically eroded by an opium addiction, he looks to make the ‘crank’ in Korea and export it to Japan, toppling the rival national in the process.
In a familiar development, greed starts to consume Lee and he establishes sales to the local market, drawing the attention of Kim In-goo (Jo Jung-suk), an honest prosector hell-bend on stopping Lee.
There is a well-cast addition of Bae Doona (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, A Girl at My Door) who plays Kim Jeong-ah, a powerful lobbist and eventual love interest of Lee. A Song-Bae axis is a powerful one for any film.
It does not give too much away to state that Lee goes from small time smuggler, to mega-rich drug lord, before a rather predictable fall from grace – a development that could be anticipated even without knowledge of the real-life Lee.
One element that does work particularly well is the set design and period detail, with the film successfully taking you back to the 1970s, with a pulsating soundtrack to match.
The Drug King might feel too much like a Frankenstein's monster of all previous drug crime films – the rise, the fall, the trophy girlfriend, the growing addiction, even the dramatic final mansion shoot-out. However, it still has Song at his usual levels of brilliance, paired with Bae. Overall, there are enough thrills to make it a worthwhile, if overly imitative, outing.