TIFF Review: Asura – The City of Madness (아수라)

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been intrigued about Asura: The City of Madness (아수라) since it was announced that it would be having its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Mainly because I love watching Jung Woo Sung (정우성) act and I wanted to see Hwang Jung Min (황정민) play a bad guy. And man, does he do it well but more on that later. Plus this film is the fourth time that director Kim Song Soo (김성수) and Jung Woo Sung, worked together, and the first time in 15 years.

But let’s talk about the film.


Han Do-Kyung is a cop in a difficult situation, his wife is dying and he needs money for her care which causes him to get in over his head with corrupt Mayor Park Sung-Bae, who is already under investigation. And it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t the first time Han Do-Kyung has helped him. Unfortunately, this time everything goes wrong and his activities come to the attention of the prosecutors who are gunning for the Mayor. But it doesn’t stop there as his situation gets progressively worse while he’s trapped between the two opposing forces.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

My Thoughts

First of all, Hwang Jung Min rocked as the bat-crazy Mayor who thinks he’s untouchable. It was such a fabulous performance that at times you couldn’t help but admire his brilliance while at others, you were just wondering what he was going to do next. Scary character in both his ruthlessness and unpredictability. But oh so fun to watch.

But let’s take a step back and talk about the film. It starts right away with action (and tons of swearing which continues throughout) with Han Do-Kyung getting rid of a witness for the mayor, which sets the tone of the film as gritty, dark and morally bankrupt but with an underlying cynical humour. The voice-over by Han Do-Kyung at the start, played with a subtle intensity by Jung Woo Sung, helped cement the overall feel of the film, which never loses either its intensity nor its darkness.

Director Kim Song Soo (김성수) does a great job at setting the scene and building the characters, none of which aren’t particularly nice people. In fact, that was what struck me the most in the film. None of the characters were good. Most weren’t evil – except the Mayor perhaps but he was more of a sociopath than evil – but rather they existed in some variance of gray, mostly shading to the darker hues. All, however, were corruptible.

It’s one of those films with villains – and yes, that’s a plural – but no true hero. Sure, you might have been expecting Han Do-Kyung to be a good person just caught in a bad situation, as Jung Woo Sung is more often cast in a good role, but while he may have had a slightly decent reason for getting in bed with the Mayor – so he can provide better care for his dying wife – it’s way more complicated than that. It was interesting seeing Jung Woo Sung in such an ambivalent role – neither good nor bad, but morally corrupted and just trying to navigate an impossible situation that keeps getting worse, both because of his decisions and from outside sources.

So what happened…

After helping the Mayor get rid of a witness who was to testify at a hearing to indict the Mayor, Han Do-Kyung’s life takes a turn for the worse when his payoff to his henchman, “Junkie” results in the death of another cop. This brings him to the attention of the prosecutors and forces him to back away from his plans of quitting the police force to officially join the mayor’s office. Unfortunately, it also leads him to another bad decision of dragging his younger partner, Moon Sun-Mo, played by Ju Ji-Hoon (주지훈), into his mess when he convinces him to take the position with the mayor in his stead. Seriously, why would you do that to your friend, your junior?

But then every decision he makes seems to make things worse.

The prosecutors are no better than the criminals – from lying to bribing with false documents to torture, it seems that there is nothing they won’t do to get the Mayor. The only ones that showed any honour were the gangsters lead by Tae, played by Kim Hae-Gon (김해곤), and see where that got him – dead. With so many bad guys, is it any wonder that one of them was the closest the film came to a decent person?

Speaking of death and violence, there’s plenty of that in all its bloody glory. The final scene is especially bloody, fittingly so. And while the film does follow some predictable patterns, what sets it apart, other than the fabulously dark characters and random, if odd, humour (often by the Mayor) like the no pants scene with the Mayor’s secretary trying to put underwear on him while he’s in a conversation with Tae, was the unusual methods of violence at times. From the death by car to the throat grab, there are moments when you might be expecting something to happen but perhaps not how it happens. The best example is the so-maek (소맥, a mix of beer and soju) scene. I’ll never be able to look at so-maek the same way again.

But it was the final bloody scene that just works in a crazy, over-the-top way. Everything from the setting – a funeral parlour – to the final song – which was a great choice – came together with such intensity. You may not like Han Do-Kyung but you got to admire the passion that Jung Woo Sung played him with, right down to the so-maek scene, so powerfully creepy but it certainly grabbed everyone’s attention (and will forever stick in my head). And to finish off a tale of corruption by playing both sides against each other was fitting – loved his parting line when he left the Mayor and Prosecutor Kim Cha-In, played by Kwak Do-Won (곽도원), together and their last glance at him was on point.

Speaking of the acting, it was solid throughout by all five of the main characters. Kwang Jung Min played the crazy Mayor well from casually walking around with no pants to the turning on and off of his emotions. It was over-the-top at times but that seemed to work for the character, and certainly made everyone wary of him.

Jung Woo Sung was fascinatingly bad at being a criminal and while it was impossible to like his character, especially after he sold out his younger partner, it was fun watching him spiral. Especially as I’m used to seeing him in a romantic or good guy role. He nailed the morally ambivalent, caught between a rock and a hard place cop.

The other three were great in their supporting roles. From Ju Ji Joon as Sun-Mo growing more cocky and as morally dark as the others to Jeong Man Sik (정만식) as the Special Investigator for the prosecution who could say so much with just a glare, the film was driven as much by the characters as it was by the violence and crime.

Finally, I thought how the film was shot suited the feel of it. The cinematography was great throughout at creating the dark, impoverished city where crime and corruption thrived but I especially liked how the car chase scene was filmed, it was so trippy (and apparently, as we found out during the Q&A at TIFF, it was Jung Woo Sung doing his own stunts in it).

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Final Thoughts

It had such a dark, gritty quality to it – from the story to how it was filmed to the depiction of the city it’s set in. Add in a bunch of morally corrupt or in the Mayor’s case, sociopathic, characters and a overflowing heaping of violence and mayhem and you’ve got a fast-paced, intense action film that will grab your attention and not let go. It’s brutal at times and filled with tension and darkness but at the same time, it’s a fun ride. And while I saw the world premiere at TIFF, it’s coming to theatres in North America October 14th.

In addition to the dark fun of seeing the film, the audience of the world premiere at TIFF got to see a Q&A with director Kim Song Soo, as well as cast members Jung Woo Sung, Ju Ji-Hoon, Kwak Do-Won, and Jeong Man-Sik which was a blast.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm on the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival. Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher.

2 thoughts on “TIFF Review: Asura – The City of Madness (아수라)

  • September 21, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Here’s a little story. I also saw the premiere of Asura last Sept 13 at the Elgin Theater with my sister.
    Sadly, she was late meeting up with me and we ended up sitting at the back Orchestra.

    The reason she was late was because she was gallivanting with her friends in the afternoon and lost track of time after dinner. After splitting from her friends, and on her way to Elgin, she saw the cast of Asura having a smoke outside Blowfish on King Street.
    I would have quickly forgiven her for her tardiness if she had taken a selfie with them. But she said she got shy, panicked, and walked away when they looked at her direction while she was frozen in the street and gawking at the very handsome Woosung and Ji Hoon. (LOL). I said, if she didn’t have any picture, it didn’t happen! Haha.

    Anyway, I thought the movie was fantastic (but I’m guessing it’s not everyone’s cup of tea)! All the actors were charming during the Intro and Q&A. Director Kim was also very engaging, sharing some very interesting points about the making of the movie! I wished Hwang Jung Min was able to join the premiere because his performance was amazing, too. Like, it needed a standing ovation! (He was outrageous in every part of that movie. I don’t think I will ever forget that butt scene or even the cutter fiasco!).

    I also googled what “asura” means and how it relates to the movie on my way home, and I found out that the title is indeed very fitting! 🙂

    • September 21, 2016 at 8:25 pm

      Totally jealous of your sister, lol. And yeah, it was a good Q&A!


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