Writer-director Chris Chan Lee superficially revamps the elements of the gangster film in Undoing, yet doesn’t bring anything genuinely new to the genre.
In Lee’s screenplay, Sam (Sung Kang) returns to Los Angeles’ Koreatown after a year away mourning the death of his friend, Joon (Leonardo Nam). Sam seeks to avenge Joon’s death without going back to the gangster life that led to the tragedy. He reunites with his much older mentor, Don Osa (Tom Bower), to help him with his mission.
In the meantime, Sam also tracks down Vera (Kelly Hu), his former girlfriend now working as a waitress. Sam vows to help Vera untangle herself from the owner of the club where she works by paying off her debts, but his promise—and his pursuit of Joon’s killer—leads him back into the very life of crime he had tried to avoid. At the same time, Don plays cat-and-mouse with a corrupt detective named Kasawa (Mary Mara). In the end, Sam and Vera emerge sadder but wiser from this dark, violent world.
Well, it’s all here: the moody atmosphere, the chiaroscuro lighting scheme, the moral “greys” of the characters, the dark, violent subject matter, and so on. Lee does a competent, sometimes impressively skilled job of recreating film noir in a modern-day context. But Undoing would only be original to someone who has never seen a “neo-noir” over the last 20 years: The film looks and sounds like quite a number of these other productions, which are always in color and usually much rougher than their classic black-and-white Hollywood counterparts. (Check out To Live and Die in L.A.., Black Rain, Jackie Brown or Memento).
Lee’s “Asian” element may also seem different and imaginative to those unacquainted with the better yakuza thrillers of Takashi Miike and Koji Wakamatsu. Of course, Quentin Tarantino (among others) already beat Lee to the postmodern “multi-cultural” punch.
Style carries a film to a point and it is true that the use of still photos, fast-motion and other techniques enhances the banal storyline. The ochre-saturated coloring of the daylight scenes, however, resembles the cinematography of “CSI: Miami” and becomes increasingly annoying. The performances are subdued, considering the genre, with Mary Mara standing out strongly in her small role as the cop with a past and Kelly Hu coming across the least convincing as the troubled girlfriend.
Undoing isn’t a bad film; it’s just not anything great or worth recommending.