THE GUILTY ONES (2019) review

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A remake of Jeong Keun-seob’s 2013 Korean thriller Montage, Wang Yu’s The Guilty Ones stars Wang Qianyuan (now leading his third Chinese remake of a Korean film, after Peace Breaker and The Big Shot) as Chen Hao, a cop who ten years ago failed to catch the kidnapper and murderer of single mother Bai Lan’s (Song Jia) daughter. Ten years later, he’s not closer to finding the culprit, and has resigned from the police, while Bai Lan is now in the terminal phase of lung cancer. Yet both are still determined to find the killer, so when the daughter of a lawyer is kidnapped and held for ransom in the exact same modus operandi as ten years ago, both the cop and the grieving mother make a last attempt at solving the case.

Chinese remakes of Korean films tend to stick rather closely to the original, and The Guilty Ones is no exception. Directed with a firm hand by renowned cinematographer Wang Yu (who’s worked for Jian Zhangke, Lou Ye, Ann Hui and Mabel Cheung), it keeps the beautifully self-contained structure of Montage, with its almost roundabout end twist that’s quietly mind-blowing while beggaring belief. If anything, it adds a few more unbelievable elements to the table: a scrawny 60 year-old physics teacher can outrun the police with near-parkour efficiency… Yet it also makes a few key changes: the deadline to finding the killer here isn’t the statute of limitations, but the mother’s imminent death, an interesting shift that brings more desperate emotion to the film, despite how unconvincingly illustrated it is: for a terminal lung cancer patient, Song Jia is looking particularly gorgeous and chain-smokes in a hospital (we get it, she’s self-destructive).

Nevertheless, Song is superb here, haunted, despondent on the outside yet full of steely resolve on the inside; Uhm Jung-hwa was fine in the original, but her fiery performance made the film’s ending a bit less surprising than in the remake. Also a step up in casting is Wang Qianyuan: while he’s not stretching in any way as a goofy but competent and resilient cop, his offbeat energy is more memorable than the more straight-laced Kim Sang-kyung in Montage. More importantly though, The Guilty Ones runs at 90 minutes, slashing a good half-hour off the original’s runtime, a very welcome tightening of the narrative: with so many details requiring suspension of disbelief, conciseness is key.

Long Story Short: A rather faithful remake, The Guilty Ones justifies its existence with a step up in casting, a few minor yet interesting changes, and a tightened runtime. ***1/2

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