Running Turtle – The Tortoise and the Hare, South Korean Version

Country: Korea
Genre: Action/ Comedy/ Drama
Director: Yeon-woo Lee
Year: 2009

Rating: ★★★½☆


One thing you can never accuse Korean filmmakers of is making life too easy on their heroes.

Pil-seong Jo (Yun-seok Kim) is a none too bright podunk cop with a fondness for gambling. Because of Jo’s lack of responsibility, his wife (Woo-seon Seon) is reduced to taking in other people’s laundry to make ends meet.

Then things get worse. Jo is suspended from the force for three months.

Just when his luck seems to be changing, Jo is robbed by fugitive Gi-tae Song (Kyeong-ho Jeong), but nobody believes his tale of woe; not the cops, not his wife, not even Jo’s children.

In order to set things right and get his job back, Jo must somehow catch Gi-tae Song, with the help of his disreputable friends, which include a bookie and a pimp.

Odds not stacked high enough against our hero yet? Gi-tae is such a good fighter that he once whupped five martial arts masters; our hero is a middle aged slacker with no discernible fighting ability. Not enough? Some hotshot cops from Seoul cockblock Jo’s efforts to track down Gi-tae. In fact, they want to arrest Jo for interfering with their investigation.

The overwhelming obstacles help, but what really makes Running Turtle work is writer/director Yeon-woo Lee’s emphasis on character. Jo and his wife are beautifully developed and Yun-seok Kim and Woo-seon Seon play the hell out of these roles. I really felt sorry for poor sad sack Jo and I understood his wife’s frustration.

Writer/director Yeon-woo Lee takes his time setting up the story. The inciting incident doesn’t occur until half an hour into the movie, but that time isn’t wasted at all. We get up to speed on all the small town relationship dynamics, which are specific enough to be interesting. And although Gi-tae is a terse character, he is humanized by his relationship with his girlfriend.

The characters are what carry Running Turtle. It isn’t the action choreography, which is of the usual modern Korean flailing variety. And Running Turtle doesn’t really build. It feels more episodic, a litany of humiliations for poor Jo.

But whatever happened to poor Jo, I was right there with him, rooting alongside. And the ending did make me smile.

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