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For the Emperor - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Hwang-je-leul wi-ha-yeo

South Korea 2014

Crime, Action, Drama

Park Sang-joon

Lee Min-ki
Park Seong-woong
Lee Tae-im
Kim Jong-goo
Jeong Heung-chae
Lee Jae-won
Park Gene-woo

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For the Emperor

For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Lee Hwan (Lee Min-ki) was once a professional baseball player until he manipulated the games in order to make the big bucks. Now, he has lost everything and is burried under a vast mountain of debt. Thus, he works for a few gangsters and is so successful with his ruthless and determined nature that he gets the attention of the boss of the crime organisation, Sang-ha (Park Seong-woong). Sang-ha lets him join his organisation, although his subordinates advise against it. Lee Hwan has finally a chance to get his hands on money again. He doesn't just collect debts for Sang-ha, who is the manager of a very successfuly bank that specializes in lending money called "Emperor Capital", he can also be of service with tips concerning baseball bettings. Lee Hwan has almost everything he desires, including beautiful bar girl Yeon-soo (Lee Tae-im). But over the years he takes his mentor Sang-ha's words more and more to heart. He decides, to be more aggressive in pursueing his goals. Even if this means betraying his mentor. However, he plays a dangerous game since Sang-ha has a superior as well. Boss Han-deuk (Kim Jong-goo) is actually pulling the strings all the time and he won't let a rookie put a stop to his game.

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For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 4

Review: From the very first minute "For the Emperor" doesn't leave any doubt that blood and knifing come before anything else in this gangster movie. The high amount of violence, the setting in a big city at night with the bright lights of the scyscrapers being reflected on the water surface as well as some electronic sound influence to the soundtrack all add to the fact that you will feel sent back to the 80s or beginning of the 90s here. So the gritty gangster setting certainly speaks in favor of the movie. However, what the flick manages to offer in atmosphere and style it lacks in story and character development. At first, this may not really be that much of a bother, but later on, when some twists are introduced, it gets somewhat hard to follow since the screenplay is written sloppily and has quite a few flaws.

For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 5

This already starts wuith the great - and bloody - introduction making barely any sense. Only later on we realize that this is in fact a flash-forward. Furthermore, it turns out that "For the Emperor" tries to follow in the footsteps of numerous similar films like "A Dirty Carnival" or "A Bittersweet Life". It's just that its story isn't as fully developed and goes from one cliché to the next. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be that bad if the twists were comprehensible for most part. And it doesn't really speak in the movie'e favor either that you can still sort of follow the events without much of a problem, even if the several twists are just making question marks pop up above your head. The problem with the plot is that the filmmakers apparently felt a strong need to add some kind of surprise at regular intervals, which because of its characters or parties lacking color remain odd, though.

For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 6

Overall, the movie naturally centers around a power struggle, a protégé who wants more and more pieces of the cake, and lots of rivals that want to attack you with their knives. Since director Park Sang-joon ("Bank Attack") aims at portraying the rise of Lee Hwan the movie is roughly divided in chapters. The director deserves some extra words of praise for his extraordinarily good pacing. The chapters gear into each other seamlessly and the movie doesn't feel artificially subdivided. Nevertheless, every chapter gets a worthwhile finale. There never is any boredom creeping in. The action is bloody and hard-hitting, but at the same time it is stylish as well. There is no real martial arts choreography, but that wouldn't have gone well with this movie anyway. Yet, the action scenes are implemented quite proficiently and you almost physically feel every knife stabbing yourself. And when there is no action, we simply get some sex.

For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 7

At this point there has to be some criticism again. Yeon-soo doesn't serve any purpose in the movie, she also doesn't make Lee Hwan give a more human impression. She simply exists to bring a few unmotivated sex scenes to the table. One of the many elements that make you realize that director Park put style before substance. This may work out well most of the time, but it harms the characters. Lee Hwan is, no matter how you look at it, not a very likeable guy. To put someone like that in the spotlight of a gangster film is pretty brave and if "For the Emperor" hadn't such a tense and stylish atmosphere this certainly wouldn't have worked out. Lee Min-ki ("Monster", "Spellbound") succeeds with his stoic and at times distorted angry face to portray an ok villain. And he in fact is supposed to be an anti-hero. But even they need to have some special character traits.

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For the Emperor - Film Screenshot 10

However, it's Park Seong-woong ("Tabloid Truth", "The Office") who as Lee Hwan's boss manages to squeeze out more from his role than the screenplay actually should allow him to. He gives a charismatic performance, but also seems ruthless and inscrutable. And as long as you believe that the boss took Lee Hwan under his wings because of sympathy he actually seems to be the most human individual of them all. Which isn't necessarily saying much. So, if you keep in mind that you need to have a liking for anti-heroes in order to have fun with "For the Emperor" you get an action-packed gangster flick which still can barely be called inventive and sadly proves this as well with its screenplay and an unnecessary flashback at the end. The unusually tense atmosphere, the anti-heroes and the hard-hitting action almost led me to give this movie a better rating. But fans of the genre surely shouldn't get disappointed.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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