Film Review: The Negotiation

It’s refreshing to see a woman front and center in an action thriller, and this hostage melodrama from Korea delivers on the thrills-and-spills level.
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Ha Chae-yun (Son Ye-jin), pretty in pink at the start of The Negotiation, is anything but happy, as she has been called into work during her vacation, a blind date. Mind you, this is not some mere office blip, for she works as a professional police negotiator in Seoul and must handle a double-hostage incident that ends traumatically with both victims and their abductors slaughtered by a clumsy SWAT team. 

Shaken to core by the bloody outcome, she is ready to quit the force, but is dragged in once more. Powerful criminal arms trader Min Tae-gu (Hyun Bin) has captured a policeman and a journalist in Bangkok and is demanding Ha to be his negotiator. A 12-hour deadline hangs over his abductees’ lives.

First-time director Lee Jong-seok, who was assistant director and screenwriter for two of the most popular recent films in Korea, Ode to My Father and The Himalayas, shows major genre skills here, maintaining an admirable tenseness that—in the ballyhoo parlance of old—grabs you by the seat of your pants. The script may have too many twists veering into improbability—including the chestnut device of shady politicos in the mix—until the true nature of the ruthless Min is finally revealed, but, technically, this is Korean commercial filmmaking at its best. It’s filled with impressively kinetic action scenes, expertly photographed and keenly edited, if laden with one of those thunderously generic action-movie music scores. You are pretty much riveted from that opening, if gruesome, scene.

Lee has found the perfect protagonist in Son, whose delicate prettiness veneers one scrappy, indefatigable and keenly intelligent professional-against-her-true-nature. Hyun Bin, who like Son is one of Korea’s biggest film stars, known as the rom-com king while she is the melodrama queen, essays his first villainous role, retaining his model handsomeness while bringing an impressive sleazy gravitas to this supposed monster of corruption. His confrontation scenes with Son make dramatic sparks fly.