This is the first time I’ve ever written the words “you won’t be bored” and not meant it as total praise. In the case of “Take Point“, written and directed by South Korean Kim Byung-woo, the excitement comes at a cost. The excitement will likely be accompanied by a measure of confusion and frustration. In fact, there are at least two major narrative questions that remain unresolved. Normally, that’s a deal-breaker for me. And yet, I’m glad I saw the film. That’s because the scenes of action and suspense are so powerful.
First off – and this is a major qualification – almost a third of the dialogue is in Korean without subtitles. In the print I saw, which was meant for Korean audiences, the only titles are in Korean because most of the dialogue is in English. The hero, code-named “Ahab”, amazingly played by Ha Jung-woo, is bi-lingual. He is a Korean defector who has been been leading a secret special forces unit for the CIA for several years. The rest of his team is American. They are hiding in a bunker in North Korea in order to kidnap an as-yet-unidentified (both to them and to us) Korean official. But the one person who gets most of the English dialogue with Ahab is “Mac”, a CIA agent played by Jennifer Ehle. She is in Washington, but we see her on one of the multiple screens in the bunker, where the team is able to electronically monitor the outside world. “Mac”, we quickly learn, is ruthless, tough and never-to-be trusted.
That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to tell you. The first twenty minutes sets up the situation. The jargon is dense and agonizing, but action audiences know by now that the thrills depend on you knowing what’s what. So you’ll get the basic idea, but it won’t matter anyway because there are so many betrayals and tactic reversals later on that you’ll never keep track. And yet, the reversals do the important and necessary work: each sets up a new nail-biting action conflict where the team is in peril.
These sequences are nerve-jangling and very intense. Kim succeeded in keeping me on the edge of my seat, and for long stretches of time. This is how he does it: the camera is hand-held and jittery; the editing is very quick, and never holds an image more than necessary; the music is sharply rhythmic, repetitive and relentless, and is used to intensify the unsettling effect of the imagery and editing; make-up is used with extraordinary subtlety to show the effects of each injury in a flash of screen time; the soundtrack is frighteningly loud, and is interspersed with constant gunfire and sudden, startling explosions that threaten to cave in the bunker. From the above, it should be obvious that seeing this film on a small screen is almost useless.
But Kim has another ace up his sleeve. He has an action hero in Ahab who is almost constantly on-screen, and whose courage, resourcefulness and, especially, whose ability to withstand pain are well beyond what we usually see in a hero. Han knows that suspense is dependent on how strongly the audience identifies with the subject in peril. Ahab’s ability to overcome pain and disability – one leg is artificial – makes him even more sympathetic than his model, who is obviously Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. In fact, the film seems intended to tap into the core audience of the “Mission Impossible” franchise. And with a potential superstar like Ha Jung-woo, whom Martin Scorsese has compared to Leonardo DiCaprio, it will be competitive.
But the frustration part is serious, and is probably why the film won’t get a major release here, even with English titles for the Korean dialogue. Ahab and Mac have long phone conversations – especially in the beginning – that have some of the most impenetrable jargon I’ve ever heard in a film. Poor Ha has to spit out multi-syllabic “cyberese” at a superfast clip, making the whole kidnapping scheme – which is somehow meant to re-elect the American president – a confused mess. Likewise, the otherwise satisfying ending of the film – which leaves open a possible sequel – left me confused about the real purpose of the team’s rescue mission.
I just wanted to get that out of the way. Those questions didn’t bother me when Kim went all-out in the action scenes, which are spectacular.