There’s a pretty excellent heroine at the heart of this otherwise competent thriller out of South Korea.
“Detective Ha is smart, capable, and there’s very little about her character that falls under the easy umbrella of ‘rookie lady cop.’ While that sounds like a low bar to set, it’s rare that other films in the genre clear it.”
Release date: July 4, 2013 (South Korea)
Director: Cho Ui-Seok & Kim Byung-Seo
Stars: Sol Kyung-Gu, Han Hyo-Joo, Jung Woo-Sung
Running time: 118 minutes
MPAA rating: NR
If there’s one thing that directors Cho Ui-Seok and Kim Byung-Seo’s crime thriller Cold Eyes has going for it, it’s the treatment of its female lead, rookie detective and surveillance expert Ha Yoon-Joo (Han Hyo-Joo). Detective Ha is smart, capable, and there’s very little about her character that falls under the easy umbrella of “rookie lady cop.” While that sounds like a low bar to set, it’s rare that other films in the genre clear it.
Instead, Ha is part of a watchable triangle of characters as a cop trying to catch a criminal mastermind as he gang before they pull off their next heist. Joined by Sol Kyung-Gu as her mentor and leader of an impossibly plugged-in surveillance team and Jung Woo-Sung as the mysterious crook with an uncanny skill for avoiding detection, Han makes Cold Eyes feel a little livelier than the simple crime procedural its synopsis implies.
The other piece is the interesting structure of the film: its co-directors Cho and Kim aren’t afraid to let the middle act stretch into a protracted search for a side character in the case, essentially allowing us to see how the cops – and Detective Ha – work using a mix of technology and superhuman levels of observation (Ha even has a little trick where she links her recall of things to a tapping motion with her index finger). It’s really only in the last act that the cops and their main target collide with one another, as his shadowy backers turn on him and a member of his team ends up on the police radar.
We’re given an arc, of sorts, for Ms. Ha who can’t separate her need to be a good cop with staying on mission. A chance encounter with a trio of kidnappers while following a suspect turns into an impromptu street fight involving the creative use of the edge of a mobile phone as a makeshift extra set of knuckles and a runaway target. But the script doesn’t really offer anywhere for this thread to go – the audience isn’t going to get behind an unfeeling robot, and yet it feels like the story isn’t really on Ha’s side when she does the right thing (even if it’s not for the benefit of the case).
Likewise, for all of the Enemy of the State-levels of surveillance and tech used the film, Cold Eyes doesn’t regard it with anything other than pragmatic neutrality – the cameras are everywhere and we’d better get used to them. Chalk it up to a cultural difference – maybe South Korea is more comfortable with the ubiquity of their surveillance than we are with our own amped-up eyes in the sky. Still, it just feels weirdly and pointedly… ignored.
That’s Cold Eyes in a nutshell: it’s not going to make anyone overthink its motives, but then again, its motives are to tell a cracking action story with high-functioning badasses playing cat and mouse. For all of that, the movie works, even if it doesn’t exactly excel.
Cold Eyes screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. You can find out more about the festival and events on the Subway Cinema page.