Tae-sik, a minder (Eom Tae-woong) for a top Korean actor Won-joon (Kim Min-joon), takes the wrap for his boss after he hits a food courier late one night while drunk driving. After going to jail, Tae-sik returns with the expectation that Won-joon will do his all to support and promote his own film career...
Andrew Sarris once said of films that they were beautiful things made by awful people. Hollywood has long, been willing to corroborate the auteurist film critic’s view by drawing back the magic curtain to reveal the darkness of some of cinema’s practitioners in films like Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and The Beautiful, the magnificent Sunset Boulevard or more recently David Lynch’s confronting Mulholland Dr. Other film industries are traditionally less bloodthirsty about their fellow travellers.
The public face of Korean movies offers (male-dominated) group support, often in line with Confucian traditions. Year in, and year out, Korean directors, producers and actors, publicly front up to support their industry. In fact, the very Top Star premiere at Busan International Film Festival screening I attended not only had its actor turned director Park Joong-hoon (Twin Cops, Nowhere To Hide) and star Eom Tae-woong present, but also amongst the audience were Kim Ki-duk, Im Kwon-taek, former Busan festival director and now filmmaker Kim Dong-ho and the widely admired Ahn Sung-ki (who has a pivotal cameo). No doubt these Korean industry players all had some foreknowledge of what Top Star would offer. (Later I learned Kim Ki-duk was present because Park had told him one minor character was based on the art-house director.) But on the whole, many in Korea’s film industry would be unprepared for the vehemence of Park’s portrayal of the less savoury aspects of his film colleagues.
Eom Tae-woong plays Tae-sik, a wannabe actor who acts as manager/minder and lackey to successful star Won-joon (Kim Min-joon). Treated no better than a slave and given just as much respect, Tae-sik hungers for the glamorous good life of which he is a peripheral participant. Opportunity knocks, when instead of having Tae-sik drive him home as per usual, the superstar dismisses his offsider from the nightclub early and subsequently – and drunkenly – drives himself home. En route Won-joon collides with a food delivery bike courier leaving a wounded biker to be found later. As the star already has an extensive rap sheet and there are several sponsorship deals in the balance, the studio CEO, their lawyer and assorted 'suits’ look for a way to keep their meal ticket out of jail. Tae-sik offers himself up as the scapegoat on the proviso that he is given an acting role upon release. Problem solved.
But Tae-sik needs more than opportunity, comically he also needs acting lessons and Won-joon finds that he must keep Tae-sik employed, groomed and supported if he is to keep himself out of prison. As the film proceeds, Tae-sik develops his talent, begins to believe his own publicity and supersedes his former master, Won-joon, who begins his descent from the apex of the star system regardless.
Eom is an actor who often manages to combine a nasty and bitter edge to a good guy persona (E.g. his selfish protagonist in romantic comedy Cyrano Agency). In this film he turns himself and the Korean industry inside out with his dark portrayal of the ambitious Tae-sik. While Eom’s performance is flawless, the script seems unable to make up its mind about its protagonist. Sometimes it implies Tae-sik will be able to bypass the foul dust (to use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase) that pollutes the film industry. At other times, the script is not only sure Tae-sik has become contaminated, but that he is fundamentally more toxic than everyone else around him. While allowing space for the audience to make up its own mind about Tae-sik’s personality is a good strategy, by hedging bets Top Star feels like it doesn’t completely know its own mind.
As a director, Park has a good eye and as one of the major Korean superstars of the 1990s, there’s no doubt he knows the milieu well. Park’s acting career faltered somewhat just as the Korean wave was taking off internationally and his English-language ventures (Jonathan Demme’s 2002 film The Truth About Charlie and an ill-conceived 1997 Australian project called Wanted) were dead ends. It’s as if Park stepped back from the Korean star system, was horrified by what he saw and so made a film to expose it. But wherever there are bright lights, there have always been people who were willing to shove others out of the way to get there. Sometimes it is as if Top Star can’t completely bare to reveal this truth. But this film bites the hand that feeds it often enough and hard enough to convince of its basis in reality, even if it occasionally falters as convincing entertainment.
One thing that would have made this cinematic admonishment easier for Korean film insiders to accept is that it comes from the top down. If Top Star had come from an outspoken rising novice director, it wouldn’t be a poison pen letter but a suicide note. While no one – not even Park – is untouchable, his long and successful career gives him a degree of immunity.