Friday, July 28, 2017

'Fabricated City' Is an Unexpectedly Gratifying Thriller

Fabricated City is the kind of movie that’s best watched when you absolutely know nothing what’s it going to be about.  It subverts expectations and is packed with twist and turns, making the unfolding of the narrative and peeling off of the characters very gratifying.  I’m not sure if it’ll work for everybody, but it blew me away personally.  Of course, I had hopes that it would be good, but I didn’t really anticipate that it was going to be that great.

Coming into the movie, what I know about it is limited to what a synopsis provided for it, that it stars Chang-wook Ji – the guy from Healer and The K2 – and is about an unemployed gamer excelling as a leader in the virtual game world who then founds himself being framed for murder.  That’s it.  Now, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I will extend the courtesy of suggesting that you limit your knowledge to those details also.  This review will get SPOILER-y after this paragraph.  If you want to optimize your viewing, stop reading and go watch it first.  But if you don’t mind knowing a bit more at the risk of spoilers, or you are skeptical of my claim that it’s great, or you have seen it already, then continue reading.
Again, this movie is at its best when you aren’t aware of how it will go as the storytelling constantly evolves without getting convoluted.  It starts off with an action set piece where we are introduced to the protagonist Kwon Yoo (Chang-wook Ji) and his team (or rather the avatars of his team).  The sequence plays in a way that makes it look like it’s setting up the start of a sci-fi action thriller film.  It only begins to feel that something is off at the end when the scenario gets quite absurd, which leads to the eventual reveal that it’s just a video game.

Then after being framed for the rape and murder of a high school girl, a quick montage is done to show his capture and trial, leading to him being sentenced to a maximum security prison.  There, he suffers greatly from the harsh environment and sadistic inmates, but it also toughens him up.  After the supposed suicide of his mother, he decides to escape, keen to prove his innocence.  At this point, the film seems to be heading to the direction of becoming a revenge thriller like Oldboy.

While on the run from the police, he’s then mysteriously contacted by his virtual teammates – whom he meets in person for the first time – who in real life are hackers, special effects engineers, technicians, adult entertainers, and middle-aged college professors.  Due to the bond he has developed with them in the gaming world, they have decided to help him clear his name by going after those who set him up.  In their investigation, (spoiler warning: major plot point) they discover that it’s the work of a sinister enterprise that frames ordinary people for the crimes committed by rich and powerful clients.  Kwon Yoo and his team then proceed to obstruct this organization’s current operations.  So, by this, the movie then also takes the form of a vigilante crime thriller.
Plot-wise, this movie really goes quite topsy-turvy.  Even up until the third act, the dynamics takes a turn.  But everything works.  Everything is smoothly done.  And, oh, on top of everything, it has tons of action along the way.  Also, just as the opening scene hinted, some science fiction elements prove to be involved in the plot after all.  So, in a sense, Fabricated City is sort of an amalgamation of different kinds of thrillers.

Never really noticed Chang-wook Ji as a great actor in Healer and The K2, but in this movie, his performance was powerful – the emotions he projected were oh so real.  I got to care strongly for his character as a result.

As for the character himself, well, it takes some suspension of disbelief for his arc – from a freeloading, irresponsible weakling of a millennial to a smart, badass hero – to work.  But it’s not hard to be sold on it.  The development done on him involves the nuances to make it satisfying.  I have one tiny nitpick about the character arc though (SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph).  When they are playing their video games, he would always opt to sacrifice himself for his teammates.  I was expecting that it would be the same in the climax – this time, in real life.  It would not only reflect his change as a person after his ordeal, becoming responsible and all that (though, to be fair, he has already shown this a couple of times throughout the movie), which would bring an exclamation point to his character arc, but it also makes sense thematically to bring his arc full circle like that.  Anyway, this is just pretty minor.
In the end, if it isn’t obvious yet, I had a blast with Fabricated City.  It’s a terrific thriller – clever, visceral, high-octane, gritty, and, most importantly, fun.  So far, it’s the best Korean film I’ve seen this year (yep, better than even Okja).

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