Film Review: Tough As Iron

Tarantino-flavored pulp, obvious, repetitive and sentimental, but you do keep watching.

In the bustling seaport city of Busan, Gang-cheol (Yoo Ah-in), a former street fighter, cleans up his act to care for his mother Soo-in (Kim Hae-sook), who is both physically and mentally ill, sometimes mistaking him for his dead father. He does backbreaking labor at a fishery but is relatively happy, having met a nice girl, Su-ji (Jung Yu-mi). But when he accidentally witnesses the gangland murder of a Yakuza mobster, he is dragged into a world of shady mobster kingpins and their crazily violent henchman. His mother is in desperate need of expensive medical care and Gang-cheol suddenly finds himself in a position to get it for her when he saves the life of an important and very grateful criminal. But, despite the temptations of a life of crime, he steadfastly tries to keep on the straight and narrow.

Heavily influenced by both the graphic violence and quirkily anecdotal narrative of Quentin Tarantino, director Ahn Kwon-tae has crafted a flashy melodrama, with two now very familiar tropes of Korean cinema—excessive violence and the maternal bond. Tough as Iron is also, like a lot of Korean movies, too extended, and tends to repeat certain plot points—like the boy's steadfast devotion to a troublesome mother who is forever running away, perching on scarily high towers and introducing herself to all and sundry as "Kim Cattrall." One particularly ferocious and grotesque mobster, the hero's particular nemesis, is given far too many scenes of being ferocious and grotesque, and the same might be said of Gang-cheol's bumbling, opportunistic buddy Jong-su (Lee Se-yeon, mugging furiously in an atrocious perm), who tragically lost the fingers of one hand and is saddled with a single dad who is an atrocious cook.

The film operates technically at a very high level, with sharply focused photography and crisp editing, and is happily filled with visual interest. At pretty regular intervals, there are hysterically bloody confrontations among the gangsters, culminating, naturally, in one real set-to at a family banquet which leaves almost everyone dead and Gang-cheol nearly so.

What keeps you watching more than anything else is the engaging lead, Yoo, who, despite a rather unfortunate nose job, is highly sympathetic and even moving as a kid who is just trying to do the right thing against nigh-impossible odds. There's a fetching purity about his round, open face, and his physical skills are impressive in the fight scenes. Jung is a nice romantic match for him, although she is basically a peripheral character, and Kim makes a personal tour-de-force of her crazy mama role, by turns infuriating and lovable.