Film Review: The Divine Move

Excessive violence and off-the-wall plotting undermine an intriguing game-based premise.

Do you know Go, that intricate chess-like game with the black and white pieces? Well, if you're seeing The Divine Move, it will certainly help, because the entire movie revolves around it. And do not be fooled into thinking that this will be a placid study of gaming nerds one-upping each other. No, this is strictly a genre piece—the genre is violent action and its provenance is Korean, so that means a lot of violence. In fact, from its first stomach-wrenching scene, this film must rank as one of the most brutal and bloody in recent years.

Professional player Tae-seok (Jung Woo-sung) has a very bad day when he loses a high-stakes game to the vicious gangster Sal-soo (Lee Beom-soo), becomes framed for the murder of his own brother and is thrown into jail. There, he vows revenge and trains fiercely while serving a seven-year sentence. Once released, he contacts his late brother's friends, "Tricks," a blind master player named "The Lord” and the skilled junkyard owner Mok-su, who conspire to penetrate Sal-soo's underworld. This Tae-seok does, killing off his henchman, until Sal-soo realizes his identity. That’s the cue for one final, all-deciding game between them.

Director Jo Beom-goo has style to burn, and his movie, dazzlingly photographed by Kim Dong-young and flash-edited by Shin Min-kyung, has a relentless visceral visual excitement. Also relentless is that aforementioned violence, however, which is so over-the-top and numbingly repetitive that the film dissolves into a very long, sick and bad joke. Amidst all the blood-spraying stabbings, pummelings, throat slashings and forced swallowing of Go pieces, the film is not above involving a sad little waif of an orphaned girl who turns out to be the most gifted player of all. The blind master and the one-armed compatriot of Tae-seok are shameless lifts from classic Asian action heroes Zatoichi and the One Armed Swordsman. If you discard all morality at the door and steel yourself for what's to come, The Divine Move may fall into that singular category of low entertainment in which you cannot believe what you are watching but keep doing so because it is so willfully outrageous.

The height of absurdity is reached in a scene when an important game takes place in an ice locker with the players shirtless, for no good reason except to show off their impressive, fat-free and toned physiques. It is all a credit to the very attractive and skilled cast, comprised of some of Korea's hottest movie names, that they commit completely to this ridiculousness with the same determined staunchness that has raised their country to the privileged economic state it now enjoys. And Korean audiences have responded in kind, making this a huge national grosser, which is either cause for celebration or head-shaking.

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