Director Moon Hyun-sung (most notably 2012’s As One) might be the most devoted fan of Edgar Wright working in South Korea, at least that’s the feeling one gets after watching Seoul Vibe (2022), his latest work for Netflix.
As the 1988 Seoul Olympics approaches, a team of talented drivers with sketchy pasts laundering money in Saudi Arabia is asked to help a prosecutor and the new government infiltrate a VIP level slush fund operation. Led by Dong-wook (Burning and Alive’s Yoo Ah-in), the Sangedong Supreme investigative team delivers the slush funds from the previous corrupt government in a set-up operation by the new government.
While Yoo is likely the film’s most recognizable name, Go Kyung-pyo (as “John Woo” Woo-sam) and Park Ju-hyun (as Yoon-hee) earn the film its run time. Both seem to be playing their roles, making the movie more fun than the more typically Hollywood acting style of Yoo (who is still good here). Woo-sam’s nickname, “John Woo,” speaks to his cool but professional demeanor, whereas Park’s natural charisma and frequent winking find support from the wardrobe department, who adorns her with Western brand crop tops, “Madonna’s funky style” mesh, and a Washington Redskins leather jacket (ripped from its social context). And like Park, the wardrobe of the entire main cast fully embraces the nostalgia for 80s Seoul, with each tokenizing a “type” of 80s young adult.
If one is blinded to the ghost of Edgar Wright looming over the production design, the editing room decisions and the sonic choices, with great admiration, unmask the ghost. With full use of split frames, circle-shaped match cuts, dance-pop music, and punchy chase scenes with extreme close-ups, Moon likely loved Baby Driver. Maybe a little too much: the allusions often come off as inferior, tackless, and drunkenly cinephilic. It’d be a much better film if it didn’t frequently remind me of how much I’d rather be watching Baby Driver.
Like most post-Korean New Wave directors, Moon is more political than Western peers like Wright—but the politics here have a sense of weightlessness, despite the crucial year of 1988 for the Republic of Korea. There’s an undercurrent of exploitation that’s half-baked into the script, for example. One driver obsesses over Jamaican paraphernalia, another wears a Redskins leather jacket, and the film starts with some questionable material in Saudi Arabia. Yet, it never seems to go anywhere—at least, nowhere that I could see. I temporarily wondered if there was an interpretive key in the music, which moves from very American to very Korean as the film works through its runtime and nears the Olympics. But even this feels a bit too sloppy to mean anything intended.
The movie is no Hollywood picture, though. Not many Hollywood movies over the past decade use religious people, of all sorts, in such a rich diversity of ways while refraining from making it a key story beat. The DJ “John Woo” studied religion (the extent of his studies doesn’t come through in translation), a Buddhist shrine initiates one scene and a rendition of “Amazing Grace” another, and early on there’s an unfunny St. Paul joke. There’s even an ascetic participating in the VIP crime syndicate. Perhaps the religious associations help box characters into certain political categories (and the Buddhists tend to be antagonists), but for the large part, Moon shows religion as a simple fact of life in 1980s Korea.
Another movie I couldn’t help but feel its impact was Lee Byeong-heon’s brilliantly original Extreme Job. In Lee’s 2019 film, a police department’s drug squad goes undercover as a chicken restaurant to spy on a local crime organization (even criminals require food…so they seem to order chicken on a nightly business?) The only problem? Their chicken shop explodes and they end up with TV gigs and enough fame to scare off the crime lords. The similarities to Moon’s newest Netflix Original aren’t difficult to discern for a viewer of both.
Unfortunately, Seoul Vibe’s action isn’t as slick as Baby Driver; nor is it as funny as Extreme Job. There’s not enough car chasing for a movie about cars, nor does the humor land with nearly the same consistency as Extreme Job. Since Moon maturely pulls away from the comedy as the politics become more real, the latter is more palling than the former. The action isn’t exactly tedious, especially since the final race has one of the best drone shots of the year, nonetheless, it falls short of the high bar it sets with its references to John Woo and Edgar Wright.
dir. Moon Hyun-sung
Now streaming on Netflix.